I’ve been designing games for about three years now. While that may seem a long time to some, it in no way qualifies me to pretend that I know what I’m doing. For the most part I come up with an idea and try to make the game fun. All the other stuff, like approaching publishing companies, determining if you need a patent (you don’t!), and even prototyping, I have learned secondhand by people who have gone through it. If you are a game designer I highly recommend you start following game people on Twitter and listening to what they have to say about everything!
Last August I attended GenCon for the first time. I brought a copy of my game, “Dam It!”, along in hopes of showing it to a publisher. Dam It is a light card game where players compete to complete their dam before anyone else. I’ll write more about the game in a later post. I had the chance to meet some great people at GenCon and I arranged a meeting with a certain publisher. I was fortunate to have three friends on the trip who graciously played Dam It one more time before I would have the meeting. Here’s my first lesson learned:
1. If your friends don’t love it, don’t bother.
That night when my friends played my game again they pointed out a few things that they thought would make it better. The interaction was too limited. Late-game options became fewer. And it had a sort of runaway leader problem. So I brainstormed that night and came up with a way to make the game better. But that meant that I could not approach the publisher since I would not have felt right pitching a game that I knew was incomplete. Here’s the lesson: If your friends aren’t enjoying it, and if they are recommending major changes, don’t waste a publisher’s time!
So I met with the publisher the next day and told him that the game wasn’t ready for discussion. But I got their business card and made plans to contact them when I had implemented the changes.
And that’s just what I did. I added two new cards to the game that both focused on interaction and eliminating a runaway leader. The cards worked as I had hoped. When I play-tested with my friends again they all seemed to agree that the game had improved. So I ordered a copy from The Game Crafter and got it ready to send out. I contacted the publisher to see if they would accept a submission and after an affirmative response I sent my little baby out into the world. But here’s the next lesson:
2. Don’t make emotional deadlines.
I must have been hopped up on the GenCon buzz because I had set a goal to send out a copy of my game before the end of October. Why is that bad? Because by setting that goal it had less to do with game development and more to do with my desires of getting published. This goal was an emotional goal. While I met the goal, I didn’t feel like I was sending out the best possible product, even though it was much better than it had been at GenCon. Here’s the lesson: Don’t make emotional goals that aren’t based on game development.
So it was a little bittersweet when I sent the game off. While on one hand I was happy that I felt like I was becoming a real game designer I was also a little disappointed because I knew that the threat of rejection was real.
It’s an interesting period of life when you’ve submitted a project to a company that could potentially publish it. There were days when I woke up and wondered if they were going to play it. I had received an email in early November stating that the company received the game and would be play-testing over Thanksgiving. So of course all day on Thanksgiving I was thinking my game was being played. It actually made for a long day. And then the waiting began, which leads to my next lesson learned:
3. Must… Be… Patient…
Once you submit a game to a publisher you are committing yourself to a life of patience. Think of it this way…
- Publishers receive a lot of games.
- Publishers have to play all those games (hopefully more than once).
- Publishers also actually produce real games, which might require a bit of their time.
So don’t think that once they get your game they’ll open it up, read the rules, and play it right away. If I were a publisher receiving submissions I would likely have a submission queue. So when you submit a game it would go to the end of the queue. You can also look at it this way: how often do you play games? and how often are those games someone’s unpublished prototype? I imagine publishers are in the business because they like to play games. I also imagine that playing only unpublished prototypes could get very old. That means some of their time is also spent playing good, published games. Here’s the lesson: When you submit a game, just forget about it for a while. Contact the publisher on a quarterly basis. And if you haven’t heard after a year, cordially request your game back.
And when you do hear back, try and listen to what the publisher is actually saying. That leads me to lesson #4:
4. All Feedback is Good Feedback
Publishers know what they’re talking about. Odds are if you are an unpublished designer, you probably do not know what you’re talking about. So listen to what they have to say. Of course, if what they are saying is, “We love your game and want to publish it,” then congratulations to you! But if they have rejected your game, make sure you understand why. Some reasons could include:
- Your game may not fit their company flavor (Like sending a zombie game to Haba, for example… bad idea)
- Your game may not fit their budget currently, but they may want to retain the rights to the game for a while.
- Your game may not be developed far enough. They may like the idea, but it needs work that they are not willing to put into it.
- Your game may be broken.
Those are obviously just a few of the reasons why a publisher may reject your game. Here’s the lesson: Don’t get frustrated by a rejection, learn from it! Also – They are not rejecting YOU. They are rejecting your game. Don’t take it personally.
What I learned from my rejection is that the game isn’t broken. It is too random. The feedback I received suggested that I not abandon the project, but rather to continue working on it and fixing its failings. So while my game was rejected, I actually learned a lot during the process. I now have a more well defined path forward with Dam It! And I’m better prepared for the next rejection. So to the publisher who rejected the game, Thank You!