Lessons From Shootouts: Products Not Games

What does it take for an small indie company to turn an idea into a game like 6d6 Shootouts? In this final of three articles [first, second] looking at what lessons can new game designers learn from the development of 6d6 Shootouts, I examine the difference between designing a game and designing a product.

Products Not Games

There is a world of difference between designing a game and designing a product.

Anyone can design a game that they can play with their friends. It doesn’t matter that the rules are scribbled on a piece of paper, that the game uses parts taken from other games or everything needed to play it fill the boot of your car.

But to design a product, the designer needs to think of a lot more than just the rules of the game.

Copyright, Trademarks, OGL and More

It is a simple thing that has caught out plenty of people in the past, including big companies such as TSR, but the game designer must be aware of the legal status of every part of the game. Things that you might expect to be in the public domain (such as the word ‘hobbit’) are not. Licenses such as OGL have certain restrictions on what you can and cannot do and other people’s trademarks can only be used in very limited circumstances.

Bottom line: Unless you invent everything yourself, you may find yourself being sued and your product pulped if you ignore this vital factor of product design.

Production Costs

Reinventing chess to use 500 different pieces might make a great game but it would be a dreadful product. Every part in a game needs to be designed, manufactured, sorted and package, all of which adds to the production costs and ultimately to the retail price. Even if the game is a simple book, if a new game mechanic requires the rule book to be in full colour or even to add an extra ten pages, serious consideration needs to given to the value of that mechanic.

Details vary from product-to-product and industry-to-industry but a retailer will be looking for a 30% – 50% mark-up on everything that comes into the store. If you are using a distributor, they will be looking for an additional 20% – 30%. This means that for every £1 you add to the manufacturing costs, around £1.80 is added to the retail price.

All the way through the game design process the designer must be aware of how the game is going to be produced, distributed and sold. There is no point wasting time developing rules that you cannot afford to manufacture.

Packaging & Distribution

Any game going into the shops needs to be packaged to be attractive in a retail environment. It also has to survive sitting in warehouses and being shipped around the world. This is harder than it sounds. Books have standard formats that make production and distribution cheap but how is your book going to stand-out amongst all the other books? Boxing a product adds significantly to the production costs and it still has to hold-its-own against those beautiful Fantasy Flight boxed sets.

The design of the game will control how it can be packaged and distributed as a product. Fragile or complicated games will need more packaging which determines the look of the product once it sits on the shop’s shelves. Decisions about the games design, e.g. the size of the game’s board or the number of special dice needed to play, have repercussions on the product’s packaging.

Production Runs and Price Points

With print-on-demand, we live in a world where it is cost effective to print just a handful of copies of a book but that has its own problems. Anyone can do this and everyone uses the same few suppliers so everyone’s books look the same. To produce unique books or boxed games requires more traditional printing techniques and that means larger print runs. This in turn means greater investment and higher warehousing costs but there is a upside to this – smaller unit costs. A single copy of a book from Lulu may cost £10, but having 1000 printed may drop the price to £1. This has a huge impact on the the retail price and profit margins.

Price points are the unconscious markers we all use to determine the worth of a product. A game that costs the same as a Starbucks coffee has a very different price point from one that costs the same as a weekend away. Customers expect different things from different points, especially the physical quality and durability of the product.

The size of your production run will have a real impact on your ability to target the best price point for the game and the size of the production runs are often dictated by decisions about the game’s design.

Iterate, Iterate, Iterate

Just as how play-testing is not something that can be tacked onto the end of the game design process, neither is product design. Every rule change in the game needs to be tested in play and its effect on the product design assessed. The clever game designer will regularly go through the motions of having the game manufactured – investigating production techniques, prototyping packaging, getting quotes and working out pricing structures. Each time though this process the game designer will learn more about the production issues and more about their game. This not only ensures a better game, but a better product as well.