Thursday, August 4, 2011

If You HYPE it, They Will Come

I've been vacationing with my family in my hometown in Iowa, and recently enjoyed one of the new attractions there:  a water park on the edge of town, surrounded on three sides by corn fields.  My wife compared it to the Kevin Costner film, Field of Dreams, in which his character hears voices that compel him to build a baseball diamond in the middle of the Iowa corn fields.  The voices whisper, "If you build it, they will come."

The "Pool of Dreams" carved out of the Iowa corn fields.

The end of summer is already approaching, and that means the time for outdoor swimming and beach vacations is coming to an end--and prime time for boardgames is, again, on the horizon.  I'm sure it's intentional that the largest boardgame convention in the world, the SPIEL in Essen, is scheduled for Autumn each year, directly before the cold and dark winter months, and right before the Christmas shopping season.  And for the Spielfrieks who attend--or watch the Essen reports for their Christmas orders--this time of year also signals the beginning of the "hype season."

As the number of small publishers and new game releases at the convention has grown to ridiculous proportions, publishers have sought out new ways to make their games stand out from the ever-expanding crowd.  You can't blame them, of course, as it is a competitive market, and it shows no signs of shrinking any time soon. From my observations, there seem to be two phases to this process:  creating hype before the convention, and creating buzz during it.

First, the art of the hype, which several publishers have mastered over the past couple of years, with many others now following suite:

The Pre-Order
One method that is now the most common practice is the pre-order system, which puts pressure on consumers to pick up the games before they have an opportunity to try them out.  This pressure increases indirectly proportional to the limited number of copies available at the convention.  The fewer the number of games, the more difficult it will be to snag the game before it is sold out.

Despite the disadvantages, the desire for gamers to find the "hidden gem"--and their fear of missing out on the hit of the convention--often moves them to reserve their copy in advance of the event.  This works so effectively that many games from smaller publishers are now sold out before the convention even begins.

To their credit, many of these publishers now post the rules of their games online in advance, but I've also noticed that many of these games disappear from online forums within a year of their releases, quickly fading into obscurity.  The ones that aren't forgotten are either reprinted or picked up by larger publishers, so there really isn't much risk in passing on a pre-order--unless, of course, a gamer has to have the game immediately (as if he or she doesn't have anything else to play, in the meantime).

Game Announcements and Diaries
Press releases with well-written game descriptions and professional color photographs of the components and illustrations can go a long way to hyping a game before the con, especially when they are posted or linked to high-traffic gaming websites, such as BoardgameGeek.  A more recent trend is to post a "Designer Diary" on these websites or on a personal blog, detailing the process that went into making the game.  Many gamers aspire to one day design their own games, and writing about the process for a published game serves both as an inspiration to these would-be designers, as well as good advertising for the game being published.

Advanced Review Copies
Getting advanced copies of the game into the hands of a few well-known reviewers can be one of the most valuable ways of creating hype before the convention.  For example, when Bernd Eisenstein decided to start his own publishing company to release Peloponnes, I encouraged him to send an advanced copy of the game to reviewer Larry Levy and his DC Gamers group, as I thought the game would appeal to them.  They loved the game, and Larry posted a glowing review shortly before the convention, which helped to bring plenty of attention to the game, especially from the English-speaking visitors.

Of course, providing advance copies to reviewers can backfire if the game fails to impress.  It's a risk that is well worth the effort, however, if the designer and publisher believe in their game.  Just as it is important for a designer to find a publisher who is a good "fit" for his or her game, it is also imperative to find a reviewer who would probably like that type of game.  For example: Larry prefers more complex games, and I'd never send him something dominated by the "blind-bidding" mechanism!

One must also be choosy, when deciding which reviewers to contact.  These days, just about every gamer has their own blog or website and will gladly write an online review in exchange for a free copy of the game.  As there are very few professional journalists in the hobby, it is not always easy to distinguish between them all, but it is necessary, otherwise a small print run will quickly be exhausted.

Playtest Groups
Sending the game to gaming groups other than the one in which the designer is a part of can also be valuable in creating buzz.  In fact, many gaming groups have their own websites where they log the games they play and write reviews.  In addition, members of the group will often chime in on internet forums about the game, as soon as it is announced.  This is "grass roots" publicity at it's best.

Furthermore, including external gaming groups in the playtesting process of the prototype early on is not only beneficial in collecting valuable feedback for tweaking the design, it also gives that gaming group a feeling of ownership, as they had a part in the design (and if possible, thanking them in the credits is a great way to encourage this).  The members who took part in the process will be even more willing to recommend the game to their friends both local and on the web.

Posting Rules Online
This is probably the most "honest" way of generating hype for those who have not yet had the opportunity to play the game.  A game really is the rules, after all, and posting the rules online gives everyone equal access to the heart of the game.  This is usually the final step for a discerning shopper, as reading the rules is not nearly as fun as reading a review or press release.  Thankfully, many companies who do pre-orders now post their rules online as well, and this can be valuable information to consumers who do not want to miss out on a limited print run--but still want to avoid a game that will disappoint them.

Next up:  I will write about generating "buzz" during the convention.

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