There is, without a doubt, nothing more unnerving to a budding game designer, then a gamer who doesn’t like your game. Your beautiful creation sits on the table, shining in the pristine newness of its inception. Around you is the hum and bustle of a full convention hall, happy people walking up and down aisles, laughing, throwing cards on tables, pointing fingers at cool toys on vendor shelves… and there’s you, the budding game designer, with a beautiful new child on the table, a nifty sign to draw in potential fans, and the feeling (in your gut) that you’ve done something incredible.
That’s when she walks over to your table. The very first potential gamer willing to try your new prototype. That very first cherub face that took a remote interest in your sign. To you, new designer, that first look was total recognition of a perfect masterpiece. But in actuality they may have just sneezed, and their rolling eye just happened to swing in your direction post sniffle.
It is here, that my story begins:
I cannot tell you how many times a person would walk up to my table at UnPub in San Jose, California.
Actually, I can. It was 352 times. Secretly I had a little silver number counter that I flicked every time someone passed my table a.) because I was excited to tell a potential publisher just how many people were interested in my game, and b.) (truthfully) I was a complete nervous wreck and needed the fidget spinner of my generation to keep from running out of the convention hall screaming like a crazy person.
352 people came up to, or passed, my table. How many of those 352 people actually liked my game?
I’m kidding. But what happened was that whenever a person passed my table, initially, I would yell:
And they’d look at me and probably wonder why I’m shouting at them, they were just going to get a Coke Zero.
In my mind, getting as many people to the table to play your game was the prime directive. And my logic followed that the more people that sat at my table, and therefore played my game, the more interest I would get, the more fans I would get, and the more successful I would become. And then, if you will, travel with me here… that’s when I could buy my yacht and sail to the private island located in a beautiful part of the Pacific Ocean that I purchased off my first game royalty check.
Here’s the important lesson I learned. The more people who sit at your table, who are interested in playing the exact game you created, the more successful you will be. Now that sounds obvious, but it involves a critical lesson that I learned the hard way: you need to be okay with turning players away from your game.
Initially when I pitched Cutthroat Kingdoms to a potential playtester, I would tell them anything and everything they wanted to hear:
“Do you like worker placement?” I would ask.
“This is worker placement–”
“–but my favorite genre is really pip manipulation dice games,” they continued.
“Ah! Cutthroat has a lot of that!”
The person looked down, noticed there wasn’t a single die on the table, and looked back at me relatively perplexed.
Eventually I understood the importance to pitch the game exactly as it was. That it was a card game, had area control, negotiation, deal-making, hand-building, political relationships and that it would take a minimum of 90 minutes to play. And you know what? That turned away a LOT of that 352 people.
At first it really freaked me out. For every person who walked away, I was scolding myself that it could have been a potential fan, that I was doing something wrong, that I had built a terrible game. That was completely not the case. For every person I turned away, with the truth (mind you), I was not only respecting that player’s time, but also preventing a potential bad experience, and therefore a potential bad review of my game! Imagine a player who abhors negotiation getting hoodwinked into playing a 90 minute negotiation game. They would be furious, probably have a bad experience, and would have nothing nice to say about your game.
Of that initial 352, I narrowed my selection down to a good, solid, 50 people. And those 50 people had the time of their lives! Cutthroat Kingdoms was exactly what they were looking for all these years.
I told a passerby exactly how the game would play, what to expect, what not to expect, and how long it would take (really). The ones who stayed quickly became my major advocates, the ones who later paved the way and evangelized the game to other gamers that were very much looking for this type of game. It was absolute magic to watch it happen.
The major lesson here is that you shouldn’t have 352 people playing your game, you should have a quarter of that, and they should be exactly the type of people who would love the type of game you made. Even if they don’t love it, they will thank you that you respected their preferences, and most importantly, their time.
– Bryan Merlonghi, Designer of Cutthroat Kingdoms
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