Friday, October 30, 2015

Publishers Answer: Would You Reject a "Good" Game?

After my last post about not being a publisher, I got a surprising number of comments disagreeing with the statement that if a game is good, a publisher will be interested, and if no publisher is interested, then the game isn't very good. JR and I asked a ton of publishers (probably literally) and they answered! Below, in alphabetical order by the publishers' last names, are their responses to these questions:

"Are there any reasons that you might reject a game that you think is both 'good' and finished? What, if anything, would you tell the designer in your rejection?"


Editor's Note: We've left responses in their original format. 


Stephen Buonocore, Stronghold Games

There are many reasons to reject a game that is "very good and finished":- One common reason would be theme or subject matter.  The game might not be appropriate for the audience that Stronghold Games is trying to reach.- Another one would be that the game supports a player count that is not of interest to me.  Unfortunately, 2-player games are harder to sell, and games that require a high player count are equally hard to sell.- And possibly the most common reason would be that the game has a similar mechanic, theme, play-style to another game in my lineup that has recently been released or is one that I want to continue to support going forward.

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Colby Dauch, Plaid Hat Games

If by very good you mean amazingly great, then no I wouldn't reject it. I'd find a way to publish it even if it didn't fit our current brand. That said I'm not likely to see much that doesn't fit our brand. These days I refer design pitches to Zev and he only passes along to us things that would fit for us.

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Fabio Del Rio, CSE Games

There are a few reasons why we would reject a well-designed game ready for publication.
  1. If we had a similar game in terms of theme or gameplay in our existing line.
  2. If the game requires a higher price point than we would be comfortable with.
  3. If the theme chosen for the game is one that we feel has been exhausted in the marketplace.
We would explain to the designer that these are the reasons for not accepting the game and would also recommend another publisher that we think would be a good fit.

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Sophie Gravel, F2Z Entertainment

The key words in your question are "very good".  That is not enough anymore in times where 1,100 games were released in Essen a few weeks ago and Kickstarter projects are adding to the global offer EVERY day.  Now, to be considered, a game has to be nothing less then amazing.

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Randy Hoyt, Foxtrot Games

Yes, there are cases where I would reject a game that was very good and finished. (Practically speaking, these might rarely happen, but they are real possibilities.)

[0. It might be a very good game but not a very good product. This may means it's not "very good" or "finished" according to your question; if not, then ignore this. Most submissions I see are like this. The number of components and resulting price of the game just don't make sense for the experience it produces.]

1. It doesn't fit my company's brand/marketing goals. It might be very good but isn't something that I want to publish. A game like King of Tokyo would be a great example. I love playing that game. But if it had been pitched it to me, I would most likely have declined it because of the combat. (Or maybe I would have redefined my company's brand? :-) I would most likely have replied to the designer with a recommendation of another company's whose brand it might fit better.

2. The market opportunity -- and/or my ability to tap into the market -- is too small. Some games only have a very small niche market, and I have a very small reach. I would most likely tell the designer either (a) I feel that there is not enough market for the game or (b) suggest that I think only a publisher with a very specific kind of audience could make it viable.

3. I don't have room in my schedule. I would share my timeline with the designer, saying that either would want to (a) talk about it again in six months if it was still available or (b) publish it but not until X date. For a great game I may adjust my schedule if possible, but sometimes it's not possible.

4. It doesn't fit my company's business goals/financial situation. For example, the game may require a lot of unique artwork and I may not have the cash available to undertake that. I would say I like the game but it's not something I can do. If I thought I could do it later, I'd reply like #3. If not, then I'd reply like #1.

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Seth Jaffee, Tasty Minstrel Games

Here are some reasons I can think of for turning down a submission of a game that I found both good and finished:

  • Problematic designer - someone I wouldn't want to work with for some reason
  • Overfull schedule - too much going on (I passed Manhattan Project Energy Empire on to James Matthe for this reason)
  • Similarity to another game in my line or another line (I passed on But Wait, There's More due to similarity to The Big Idea that was being re-released at the same time)
  • Not suitable for the line (many games are good but not suitable for a particular company)
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Chris Kirkman, Dice Hate Me / Greater Than Games

It's really difficult to let a game go that seems both good and ready to hit the table, but as a publisher you have to think with your head as well as your heart. Here are a few reasons why a publisher might pass:
  1. It's just not the right fit for the brand. This is a huge consideration for Dice Hate Me Games as we have established a certain aesthetic in theme, art, and game design. I may take a look at the greatest card-based area control game ever designed about robotic cat assassins but it's probably not the right fit for the brand.
  2. It's just not economically feasible. This can mean a couple of things - either the production costs of your game versus the weight/length/complexity just seem off to the publisher, or the publisher may not currently be able to take on the fiscal responsibility of another title.
  3. There's just too much in the pipeline. Not all publishers will do this, but I will sometimes reject submissions because we just have too much else going on and I don't want to hold that design hostage until we find a production window.
  4. It's not me, it's you. It's more rare, but a publisher might just pass on a finished design because they feel like working with the designer might not be a good fit. Making a game together is a lot like raising a baby together - it takes patience, kindness, cooperation, and communication. Not everyone is a good match to raise a baby.
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James Mathe, Minion Games

We'd reject a good game (assuming that means ready to be signed and ready for final development) for these reasons:
  • It's too similar to a game we already publish.
  • It's not of a theme/style our company normally prints.
  • It requires too many bits for the type of game it is and thus would be too costly to make.
  • Dealings with the designer early on indicate that they'd be hard to work with our wouldn't compromise.
  • We just have too much in the pipeline already to want to take on more games.
  • If the game was already Kickstarter or printed without our involvement.
  • If the game required a IP license and they don't already have tentative agreement to use it.
  • If we're asked to sign an NDA up front.
  • If the game involves a patent retained by the designer.
  • If the designer insists on using a friend for the artwork and I don't like that art.
  • If the game is designed to be a CCG/TCG.
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Scott Morris, Arcane Wonders

Yes, and I have unfortunately. Depending on the publisher’s situation, just because it’s a great game, doesn’t mean they “can” make it. For example, I’ve said no to games I’ve liked, would love to have made, but we had committed to other games already. This poses a problem as you have commitments you need to fulfill with already signed games, but have this “hot game” in front of you. Some publishers can adjust schedules easily, but if you have certain timeframe commitments, I can easily see a publisher saying “Sorry, I just can’t fit it in.” This opens the door to the designer more than they’d think. They could have ended up with the game signed by that publisher and it taking years, if ever, to see daylight, when in fact they now know they can shop it around and hopefully get it made sooner. There’s some publishers that operate like that, but as a fan and publisher, I’d like to see great games be made, not me holding them up. 50% of the battle in getting a game signed with a publisher is timing. I firmly believe the other 50% is 25% the publisher’s need and 25% your relationship with them.

Another reason could be the capabilities of the publisher’s manufacturer. For example, if you have a game that requires custom plastic molded pieces (not minis per se, but something specific and unique) then the publisher may be in a position of having to say no due to the lack of capabilities their current manufacturer has. Or worse, the costs. Sometimes games require components that just don’t make them worth the value at the cost of production. I once saw a game that looked amazing, but the cost to produce it would have made it a $99 game, minimum, and the actual gameplay experience was much less than a $99 game. Things like that can halt a solid game design; however, if looked at correctly from a design perspective, can challenge the designer to keep their uniqueness and manage the costs with a publisher, but it takes teamwork and a lot of time usually.

You may say, “Well just go find another manufacturer to make it with the capabilities right?” but it’s not that easy. Most of us have long term relationships and lines of credit with our manufacturer’s. Like most industries, it’s a relationship driven business. I come back to the same publisher for quality and consistency in the same way they want my business for knowing I’ll sell a bunch, meaning they’ll print a bunch, and as such, are flexible with lines of credit to manage capital the best way. Going to a new manufacturer usually means no line of credit, or very little, so it’s an investment upfront, which some publisher’s don’t want to (or maybe can’t for cash flow reason) take, and it also means a longer cycle to manufacturing as you’ll want to QC every step. A new manufacturer also means learning their processes. It’s not as simple as I take a file that I’ve been sending to manufacturer A and then send it to manufacturer B and say “print this”. They all have different machines, software, and requirements, and that means reworking files, working in new ways your team may not be accustom to, all resulting in longer cycle times to make said game. Meanwhile, in the middle of all this, you just another hot new game from a budding designer… and want to, and can, make it…

There’s no shortage of great games out there right now. Everyone, literally everyone I talk to has a game design. My advice is never take “no” as a bad thing. It’s just one more step to a “yes”. When someone tells you “No” though, I think it’s completely fair to ask, “Why?” 
Relationships are a two way street, and knowing more about why the publisher is saying no will arm you better the next time you meet about the current game being pitched, or a future game you may pitch to them down the road.

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Shari Spiro, Breaking Games (and AdMagic)

There are several reasons I can think of to reject a game - even if I love it and it is basically done.
  • First, we may already be jammed up with games and may feel like we cannot do the game justice because we have so many other games to promote.
  • Second, it may be too expensive to produce or our budget for printing may be exhausted.
  • Third, we may not get along with the designer as well as we would like - they may be too pushy - they may be difficult or finicky.
  • Fourth, the designer may not want the same business terms as we do or they may have an unrealistic timeline.
  • Fifth, we are a designer centric line. We like designers to help demo their games. They may not have time for that and we may want that for their particular game if we were going to take it on.
  • Sixth, we may not have a buyer who wants it, or it may not work in our line.
I would be as honest with the designer as possible and give them the information from above - however if they were difficult I would not tell them that - I would just be honest and say we have different views that probably will conflict down the road.

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Jamey Stegmaier, Stonemaier Games

I’m trying to imagine this scenario. I could see it happening like this: Perhaps a designer has been preparing for a Kickstarter. They’ve designed, developed, and playtested the game, and they have final art and graphic design in place. However, they decide at the last minute that running a Kickstarter isn’t for them. They’re rather just be a designer and let someone else publish the game.

We’ll also assume that I play the game and love it—it’s fun, clever, and it looks great. The theme is unique and marketable, and there are a few mechanisms with a good hook. It’s also in line with my design philosophies and does something different than other games in our portfolio while still fitting into our general guidelines.

Given all that, is there any reason I would reject it? Almost definitely not. I think the one reason might be timing or cash flow, but even then it would probably be a matter of signing it now and publishing it later.

However, do I think that type of thing ever happens with a game, where all of those factors I mentioned above fall into place? Because if any one of those factors isn’t there, it’s a huge detriment to me. I think it would be exceptionally rare for that scenario to occur.

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Jason Tagmire, Button Shy Games

"Good and finished" doesn't equal "fitting and marketable". Just because a game is good or fun doesn't mean it'll fit the mold of the publisher or probably more importantly, it doesn't mean the publisher will be able to sell enough of it to take the plunge. This is a very competitive business. There's a ton of crossover and while it's not harsh competition, there are just a lot of games out there right now. If the game will not stand out in the crowd, it would be a risk to sign. When I play something that is good and finished, I look at all of the options. Is it marketable? Does it fit what I'm going for? Have I worked with this person before, or do I know someone who has? Are there other games like this in my library or others that are in the same circle? Does the designer have a following? (We're small potatoes here and need everything we can get.) And when it doesn't fit those criteria, I'll let the designer know that it isn't right for what I'm doing. Ultimately, sometimes it's a great game, but you just don't think it's right for your audience.

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Brad Talton, Level 99 Games


Yes, I've rejected games before that fit both of these categories. A publisher's line is something that they have to think about–how this game will stand among other games in the line and be perceived. There are also the considerations of the business.

Sometimes the game's theme is off, and you don't see a good re-theme (or the designer is very set on the theme). Sometimes you know that you don't have the time or money to give a game the attention it deserves. 

Sometimes the gameplay, while good, just isn't a good fit with the brand you've created and the style of games that you're known for, so your fans won't be likely to appreciate it, even if you do.

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Ignacy Trzewiczek, Portal Games

Yes, it did happen and I am sure it will happen in a future. Portal Games (and most other publishers) has a very strong vision of the games we want to publish and we build our whole strategy, marketing, and vision of the company around that. With no doubt if I say 'Fantasy Flight Games' it immediately brings a particular image to mind - strong theme, great artwork, sci-fi or fantasy game. If I say Portal Games hopefully you will immediately think about hybrid games, games with strong themes, but well blended into euro mechanisms. If I say GMT you think about amazing historical games.

Therefore I would decide to refuse to publish an abstract strategy game, I would refuse to publish dry a euro game, etc... 

It's all about having vision and a clear idea of what your company wants to publish, what sort of games are in your interests and what audience you create for.

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Dave Villegas, Gamer Nation Studios


Yes.
  • The designer thinks too highly of himself/too demanding.
  • The designer asks for an NDA.
  • The content is not easily re-themed and is not of a nature that we want to have associated with our brand. 
Just a couple of reasons off the top of my head, one of which we used (NDA). I'd simply tell the designer the truth. With option 1, I would offer our terms and let him know if they are not acceptable, we'd mutually part ways. With 2, I'd immediately reject and state the reason as such, NDA requests are an automatic deal breaker for us. For 3, we'd simply state that adult themes are not our thing.

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Reflections from Doug & JR

Doug
First off, I'd like to thank all of the publishers who took the time to correspond with us about this. We greatly, greatly appreciate it - and obviously couldn't have this article without your responses!

The thing that surprised me the most was how honest people were about not being willing to sign a game if the designer seemed hard to work with. About half of the responses indicated that that's a consideration for them. I guess I always just figured that they'd contractually work around that - like if they don't want to deal with someone, they'd just put into the contract how to communicate with them.

I also never thought about even sending an NDA to a publisher, so I never figured it would factor into a decision - but maybe that speaks to whether or not the person is going to be difficult.

The last thing that surprised me was that Plaid Hat Games and Stonemaier Games wouldn't really stop themselves from publishing a game that they thought was good. I figured that even the best games wouldn't be right for some companies - but would find a good home with a publisher whose brand they fit.

On the whole, though, I think this backs up my earlier comment that good games will, in the end, find a home. It might not be the first, second, or fifth publisher it's pitched to, but in the end, someone will want it.

JR
Like Doug said, thanks to all our friends who replied. There's a consistent thread through the responses that I love, that they're looking for the next great game, and all of these folks are big fans of gaming. Nobody answered with "I don't think it will sell enough copies" or something equally mercenary. I love our hobby (or industry, depending on your perspective) because the people working in it day to day love games, love what they do, and want to see the best games hit the table. 



Legal issues = requiring an NDA and/or needing an IP
The most common things mentioned were about the company's brand, money required to publish the game, timing, and issues with the designer. It sends a pretty strong message: if you're a designer looking to pitch to a publisher, think about these things ahead of time! Does your game fit their brand? Can you ask about their release schedule? What's the price point of their most popular games? And for heaven's sake, be respectful and easy to work with! 

On a final note, I wish we'd asked publishers if they would recommend a good game to another publisher - maybe that's for the next article! 

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Doug Levandowski is a game designer who co-created Gothic DoctorUnPub: The UnPublished Card Game, and created You're FiredYou can find him on Twitter at @levzilla and on Star Realms as DougLev, where he'd love to lose to you.

JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas.