Tuesday, June 18, 2019

To Unionize or Not to Unionize?

On Monday May 5, 2019 the employees at developer Riot Games staged a walkout to protest the company’s corporate culture and to raise the issue of unionization for the game industry. Riot Games, the maker of League of Legends that earned $1.4 billion in 2018, is one of the biggest gaming companies in the industry. Riot has over 2,500 employees working on their 20-acre Los Angeles campus.

The protest comes after the company filed motions to force two employees involved in lawsuits against Riot Games into private arbitration; aiming to prevent the cases from reaching a jury trial. The lawsuits stem from the publication of an article on the website Kotaku titled “Inside the Culture of Sexism at Riot Games,” which investigated claims of sexism, gender discrimination, and toxic masculinity within the company. 

The protesting employees felt that even after the issues within Riot became public, the company has done little to address them. Riot claims that they have taken steps to change the company’s culture--even starting an internal team to address said issues--however, protesting employees feel that Riot has been slow to exact change. 

While these problems are not exclusive to Riot Games, the protesters have used their platform to bring attention to another issue that has been whirling around in the games industry for decades: the call for unionization within the gaming industry.

Game developers have been debating whether unionization is necessary or not for decades. Reports of mismanagement and long, unpaid overtime hours known as “crunch time” have been at the top of developers’ list of grievances. But others state that unionizing won’t address the core problems and might bring more trouble than it is worth. 

Game developers have looked at their counterparts in the film industry as a possible model. But would it help? Let’s take a look at the issues labor unions have historically solved and how unionizing might help or hurt help game developers: 

Hours and Overtime: Up until now, many game studios have told employees that “crunch time” is just a way of life in the game development community. They often try to lessen the burden with free meals, snacks or even T-shirts. Additionally, they may offer services such as gyms, play spaces, or sleeping areas to keep employees in the office. 

Labor unions have historically lobbied for their members to only work specific hours, limiting overtime hours or requesting a higher pay to compensate for the extra hours. Some game developers believe this extra expense would convince management to rethink their scheduling, which would ideally reduce “crunch time.” or, if crunch still happens, better compensation for the employees. Others argue that game developers that more compensation would lead to higher job competition with workers willing to accept less hourly pay.

Working Conditions: Labor unions have historically fought for changes in dangerous working conditions and resolving conflicts between management and the employees.
While the most dangerous part of a game developer’s day is probably staring too long at a computer screen, conflict resolution, like the problems happening at Riot, is a stronger reason to unionize. A union gives employees a voice when they might be too afraid to stand up to management against issues such as sexism or “bro culture”. 

Creative rights: The Writers Guild of America (WGA) is one of the few unions for creative artists that closest resembles what a video game industry union could be. The WGA supports several rights for their members including creative rights, protecting creative works, and credit arbitration. 

There have been instances of game creators being miscredited in games or being left out of the credits entirely. Game concepts have been stolen and credited to other developers. Holding game developers and publishers accountable for creative rights would only improve company morale and drive creativity overall.

Should game developers unionize? It’s a tough decision. Many developers are too frightened to even mention the topic for fear of losing their jobs. Others feel that a union would quickly become corrupt and neglect their members in favor of catering to big developers and publishers. It’s a hard issue to discuss but one that feels like it is soon coming to a head.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Sell Sheet templates

The last blog post I wrote about why it is important for a tabletop game designer to have a sell-sheet. This time I wanted to create some tools to help you make your own sell-sheet.

With any graphic design project, it can be challenging to determine where to begin, so I've created four templates to help inspire you when creating sell-sheets.

Each sell-sheet has an area designated for the important information: Your game's logo, a log-line (often called an elevator pitch) for the game, the list of components, a short description of the gameplay, the game's unique selling points - the things that makes your game stand out from all of the others on the market, "the three essentials" - the number of players, age of players and time it takes to play the game and your contact information (name, email and/or phone number). The studio logo is purely optional, but I find it adds a nice professional touch.

The first template features a big bold title right in the middle to catch the reader's attention immediately. It only has a couple of spots for images, so the ones you use should be eye-catching - preferably of the game set up in all of it's glory.

The second template pulls the reader's eye around the page in a series of circular movements. The art that you use for these should compliment this movement - use preferably circular and diagonal artwork to facilitate the circular movement.

This third template draws the reader's eye downward, past the game's logo and down the page in a very dramatic fashion.

The fourth template allows the reader's eye spill down the page like a waterfall. It's much more flowing than the other templates, allowing the reader to catch the text as it travels downwards.

I hope you find these templates useful in the creation of your own sell-sheets! Feel free to use these when creating your own sell-sheets - and if you want to share them, please credit me.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The importance of sell-sheets

I'm starting to create my sell-sheets for the upcoming tabletop convention season and I realized that many of you might not realize how important they are in the world of tabletop game design... or even what sell-sheets are.

Sell-sheets are kind of like the one-pager document that you'll find in my book Level Up! the Guide to Great Video Game Design - these documents act as a touchstone for the design team (or designer) to remind them what is important about the game. But sell-sheets are much more than that.

Sell-sheets act as a promotional tool for the game - a game's resume as it were - that lets the reader know what's cool about the game. But it also provides vital information to a potential publisher - which helps them determine the game's genre, cost, play time, player age, and more.

A printed sell-sheet is a "leave-behind" for the designer to give to publishers at conventions.  They even are used as the first stage entry in many tabletop design contests.

Here are a few examples of sell-sheets that I've created over the years:

You'll notice that all of these sell-sheets have many elements in common. Let's take a look at what your sell-sheet needs.

1) Your game's title: Every game needs a title and yours is no different. Make sure you check Google and BoardGameGeek.com's database to make sure you aren't naming your game after something that already exists. I try to create the logo of the game on the sell-sheet. Fonts go pretty far to give a game an identity and get the game's genre across to the reader.

2) The "three essentials": Number of Players, Minimum Age of Players and Time it Takes to Play your game. These three pieces of information are critical to have on your sell sheet as it informs the publisher of many things about your game and whether they will want to publish it or not. For example, some publishers won't make games for two players, while others specialize in them.

3) Game play overview: A brief overview of how to play the game and how to win the game. Keep this as brief as possible, no more than a sentence. If you can't describe your game play in a sentence, you might have a problem.

4) Game photos: Show at least one photo of the game in action, preferably with it set up to show what it is like to play. You don't always need to show players playing the game in your photos - but if you do, make sure they look like they are having a good time. Fake the shot if you have to. Nobody want to buy a game if your models don't look like they are enjoying themselves.

5) Game play description: Describe the action that is going on in the photos. Tell the reader how the game is played, what's cool and unique about the game play and why they would want to make it. Use short sentence or bullet-points to get this across. Once again, beware the blocks of text. I also think that "beautiful art" and "great story" are not valid bullet points. All games should have these (unless they are an abstract game)

6) Components List: This is a list of all of the components the player will get in the game. This is actually very important because they let the publisher know just how much your game will cost to make. Have hundreds of miniatures in your game? Some publishers might think twice or reject your game completely based on that. Others, might welcome it. (Knowing who you are pitching your game to is a very important part of the selling process.)

7) Your contact information: You should always include your name, e-mail address and/or phone number on a sell-sheet. Otherwise, how will the publisher be able to contact you when they are ready to buy your game? I also put my "studio's logo" on the sell-sheet. It gives me a little bit of a "brand identity" and makes me feel a little more professional. It's not necessary, but it's fun.

8) Graphics: Finally, make your sell-sheet look nice. You don't necessarily need pictures on your sell-sheet but if you are trying to create a mood or a theme, drawings, fonts, and graphics can go far. Even at a glance, you can tell that A Town Called Showdown is a western themed game while Rayguns and Rocketships is a pulp sci-fi game all because of the color, graphics and fonts I used on the sell-sheet. When dealing with fonts, don't forget the "two-font" rule. You should never use more than two styles of fonts on your documents: a "fancy" or thematic one for titles and headers and a simple font for the rest of the text. I am a big fan of simple, legible fonts like Calibri, Cambria and Helvetica Neue.

I hope this helps you understand why sell-sheets are so important and some ideas and guidance on how to create your own. Good luck and be sure to share your own sell-sheets in the comments below!

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Sometimes I write articles...

As some of you know, I work for the New York Film Academy.

No, I don't live in New York.

No, I don't teach film.

(It can get a bit confusing.)

But what I sometimes do is write articles about gaming for their blog. Here are two articles you might want to read:

Netflix's Bandersnatch and Interactive Storytelling

Insomniac's Spider-Man and why AAA games still matter.

I'd love to hear your comments below!

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Why don't board games sell like video games?

I often wonder “why don’t board games sell like video games?” Now, I know that there have been a few tabletop games that have sold a million or more copies (many of the ones that have, took decades to do so) but none of them sell with the speed that video games do. Why not?

After some observation and thought (and experience as I have been playing and creating tabletop games and video games my whole life), I came to the following conclusion: Videogame players are the same audience as movie audiences while boardgame players are the same audience as books readers.

You just have to look at the success of board games in retail spaces like Barnes and Noble – and the decline of their movie section – to see this in action. However, I think there is something else going on and it has to do with each media’s respective audiences. In terms of attention span and temperament, these audiences for these media are very different. Each media has several factors that appeal to or turn off an audience. I call these factors the barriers to entry. Movies and video games have a “low” barrier to entry while books and board games have a “higher” barrier to entry.

Let’s look at the barrier of entry to watch a movie. A movie viewer needs the time (roughly 90-120 min) and money (or access if we including today’s streaming services) to watch the movie. If you want to be pedantic, you can include attention span to that. However, once the movie has started, the audience member’s gratification can be almost immediate. Remember back to the first time you saw Star Wars (Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope to those of you who didn’t watch it in 1977) and when that Star Destroyer can rumbling by. I don’t know about you but I was enthrall from that opening scene. Immediate gratification.

The barrier of entry to video games is higher than a movie’s but the time to gratification can be the same. Audience members require (if they are playing a console game) the money for the game system (several hundred dollars) and the software ($40-60), the ability/dexterity to play the game (which can often be a factor is why someone doesn’t play or finish a game) and, of course, the time to play the game (the average is 6 – 20 hours) – however, if you are playing a mobile game then the time commitment is much, much shorter: closer to minutes than hours. However, players put up with these factored because, just like movie audiences, a video game player can get almost immediate gratification from playing a game.

The book reader’s barrier of entry is almost the opposite to a movie/video game. The product is far less expensive than video games (closer in the case of a movie) but the time commitment can be considerably longer (depending on the length of the book) and, more importantly, requires constant engagement from the reader. Unlike movies – which is a completely passive experience, if book readers stop reader, the experience stops. The same is true for many video games, but it is possible to “play” a video game absent-mindedly. Another barrier to entry is that book readers have to make their engagement in the content based solely on faith. Movies and video games have trailers – it is easy for audiences to make a decision to engage in the content based solely on the trailer. With a book, there’s the cover and, if you are willing, you might read a few pages in the store or on-line. There’s a reason that the saying “you can’t judge a book by its cover” exists!

Gratification for book readers is much more delayed than a movie or a video game - sometimes substantially- often a reader might have to finish a book before they know whether they liked it. Or in my own experience, it might require revisiting to form an opinion.

The barrier of entry for tabletop gaming requires more money than a book (of course, this depends on the game. A game like The Mind is only $9.99 at Target, while Mansions of Madness costs $99.99), and require the same level of trust as a book reader to discover whether a game is “good” or not. The maxim “You can’t judge a book by its cover” applies to board games as well and you can watch all of the “watch it played” videos you’d like - but just like a video game - you just won’t know whether you like a tabletop game until you play it. The forums of BoardGameGeek.Com are littered with reviews stating “I thought I’d like this more.”

As with video games, the time commitment for tabletop games varies – minutes to hours – but modern hobbyist games often trend towards hours. And don’t get me started on campaign games like Gloomhaven, Kingdom Death: Monster and Dungeons and Dragons. (I have a friend who has been playing the same D&D campaign for decades!)

Of all of the entertainment mediums, the game rules offer the highest barrier of entry. Designer Rob Daviau has noted that “the best moment of owning a game is when you open the box and the worst moment is when you read the rules.” I don’t know about you but there have been many times where I have read the rules to a game, thought I understood how to play it and still “played it wrong”?).

Finally, there is one last barrier of entry to tabletop gaming: other people. Most games require other players to even engage – all other forms of media we’ve discussed are solitary – and it can be challenging, if not difficult to gather the players necessary to play a tabletop game. This is one of the reasons why I think “solo modes” have taken off in board gaming.

So will “board games ever sell like video games?” My research points to “no”. The barriers of entry for board games is just to high for the mass market. But does it need to sell like video games? I think this starts the discussion for an even more relevant question, “why do board games need to be compared to video games or movies or books at all?”