No one else will care about your business as much as you do. No one else will work as hard as you do. No one else will ever have as much at stake in your business as you do.
– Kristine Kathryn Rusch
The above was written in regards to when to hire employees into your business but it might just as well have been about the games you design. The ugly truth is that no one else will care about your games as much as you do. No one else will work as hard on your games as you do and no one else will have as much of a stake in your games as you do.
At Göttingen I saw a fellow designer present a prototype to a publisher. The publisher was interested; the game was good and, from what I could see, polished. But there was a problem. The publisher didn’t think the game would work with the current type of theme.
Now, the game was an abstract with a pasted on theme. It would take all of a couple of hours to paste on another theme. It was up to the game designer to figure out what theme that should be and make it so.
The publisher didn’t care. Sure, they’d have liked to test the prototype with a different theme. They even may, after the designer completes the change. But it’s up to the designer to make the change because the publisher doesn’t care.
Building a Stake Takes Time
Why not? Doesn’t the publisher want good games? Sure they do. They love good games. They see lots and lots of them each month. And they buy a few, because no matter how unique and marvelous the designer feels the game is, to the publisher it likely is commonplace. The publisher doesn’t have a stake in the game, not yet.
Go read the Legacy design diary by Ignacy Trzewiczek and Michiel Hendriks. Read the part where Trzewiczek threatens to take over Michiel’s game. What he’s saying is that he’s willing to take a stake in the game, to make it his own, to put into the game something of himself but then he’ll be taking over part of the designer’s stake, and all of the designer’s control.
That’s what you want, a publisher that has a stake in your game. How to do this? Frankly, I haven’t got any idea. The closest I can figure it’s the same as in any other type of selling: make the customer excited about your product by helping them create their own stories around it. That’s why the car seller wants you to test drive the car and why you want the publisher to play your game. But you better make sure that the stories are there to be created. If you hand them a prototype that doesn’t fit their lineup, or doesn’t play smoothly, they might create stories about you instead: oh, it’s that guy who didn’t care enough to figure out our business model.
Respect your Playtesters
The same goes for your playtesters. I’ve burnt out a group by bringing too many games that they didn’t create stories about; instead they created the story around me “There goes Fil with another of his prototypes”. Yep, that’s me, the prototype man. But they don’t have any stories around my prototypes. Compare this with another playtest group, an ad-hock one that got to play prototypes at a much later stage. I hadn’t met one of the members for over a year, and then only a few times, but he remembered me “hey, you’re the guy with that hysteric real-time game”. Yep, that’s me, Fil the prototype man.
Both stories are valid and true, even if they’re opposite. And both show that the person who has the largest stake in my game designs is me, but I can make others have a stake in it too.
There’s a lesson here, however: people who you interact with start with a small amount of goodwill towards you. You get it for free by just being there and talking to them, it’s part of our social makeup. Then it’s up to you to transform it into stake in your creations. And the only way I’ve found to do this is to show them good, and preferably great, games.