Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Letter to Publishers: Act Professionally

Last year, I half-jokingly posted a list for aspiring game designers of Things Not to Say When Pitching to a Publisher.  It proved more popular than I could have imagined, and inspired a more serious follow-up of suggestions for pitching to a publisher.  Even though many game designers are hobbyists, I believe it is important that we act professionally when presenting our work.

This time, I’d like to turn the conversation towards the publishers, both big and small, who actively seek out new designs for their catalogues.  While most of my experiences have been positive ones, I have also experienced—or been privy to—some areas needing improvement from the publishing side.

Consider this an open letter to publishers—especially those starting out in publishing—to challenge them to be more professional in their interactions with game designers.

The first and foremost sign of professionalism from a publisher, in my opinion, is good communication with game designers, especially after a prototype has been solicited for internal testing. It is perfectly understandable that playtesting can take some time, but they should be able to communicate realistically how long it will take before they will send the designer feedback.  And if they need to extend this period beyond what they promised, it is perfectly acceptable as long as they communicate this to the designer.  Communication shows respect, and it is especially important for a publisher who requests prototypes exclusively, as they are tying up that prototype from testing by another publisher.

Of course, communication can be overdone.  If a designer is writing weekly (or daily) emails asking about the status of his or her prototype, then it is important for the publisher to communicate clearly that they will send feedback at a specific point in time and not before. 

Generally, it may also be important to establish what an acceptable amount of time is in answering emails.

The level of communication varies, of course, from publisher to publisher—but also from time to time, as much of a publisher’s job is devoted to tasks other than looking at new prototypes.  That said, I’ve had very good experiences with Stefan Brück of alea, Thorsten Gimmler of Schmidt, Michel Matschoss formerly of Winning Moves Germany, Henning Kröpke and Andre Bronswijk of Pegasus.  The best I’ve ever worked with, however, was Uli Blennemann, formerly of Phalanx Germany.  Uli’s feedback for my prototype Artifact, designed with Bernd Eisenstein, was so quick and detailed, that it helped us develop the design further over a short period of time.  It was a shame that we weren’t able to produce the game with him after working so much together on it, as the Dutch headquarters turned it down, but the game went on to place in the top 6 of the Hippodice Competition and find another publisher soon after.

There have been other examples, too, unfortunately.  Most of them have been from small publishers, as they often seem to be hobbyists who “bite off more than they can chew” with a start-up company.  If you have just started your own publishing company and want to find good game designs to publish, make sure you communicate well with potential designers.  There is nothing more frustrating that having emails unanswered for months at a time.  It is also unprofessional to see information posted online about game release schedules before they are ever communicated to the designer.

Edit: as Peer mentions in the comments below, when a prototype is rejected after playtesting, the publisher exhibits professionalism by writing a brief letter stating why they do not wish to publish it.

There are certainly advantages to working with hobby game publishers in such an informal industry.  Personal relationships are important, and once one is established, designer and publisher usually address each other on a first-name basis.  This is, however, no excuse to act unprofessionally, and publishers need to remember to treat every designer—whether wannabe or established—with respect.  I can certainly understand how tiring it may be for publishers to sift through the hundreds of unoriginal game ideas in order to find the undiscovered gems, but that is their job, and there is no need to be rude to a designer who is pitching something that does not interest them.  The best publishers are honest but tactful, and if they see something good in the designs, even encouraging.  I’ve even had publishers recommend other publishers for a particular design.

Unfortunately, I’ve also heard of publishers who were unnecessarily rude to wannabe designers.  A couple from Berlin, for example, were pitching their game idea to a publisher at the Göttingen Game Designer’s Convention.  Players in the game needed to drive their ambulances around the board in order to rescue people who were sick or had different types of injuries.  Instead of pointing out the reasons why they were not interested in that game, however, the publisher commented smuggly, “After playing this game, I feel sick, too.”

Almost every game designer begins by designing variations on what he or she already knows.  It is often only after much practice that more originality begins to show in their work.  A good publisher recognizes this and will try to inspire new designers to continue to develop in their craft, rather than slamming the door in their faces with unnecessary rudeness or arrogance.

Good communication should not end once a contract is signed.  It can actually be beneficial for the publisher to see the development and publication process as a collaboration with the designer.  For example, publishers who consult with designers can actually avoid problems in the rules and graphic presentation, as one can never have too many people proofread the game before publication.  Publishers who have collaborated well with me during the development and publication process are Jonny De Vries (White Goblin), Stefan Brück (alea), Andre Bronswijk (Pegasus), Rob Seater (Cambridge Games Factory) and Uli Schumacher (formerly of Winning Moves Germany).  In each case, the level of collaboration made each final product better.

For example, I was able to avoid a real mess with Piece o’ Cake/Aber bitte mit Sahne because the publisher sent me the rules just before publication.  Someone had included a seemingly innocent sentence to require as many rounds as the number of players.  While that is certainly an option for some, including that in the rules as a requirement would make the game unbearably long for 5 players!  The game, then, would no longer be judged as a „filler“ and complaints about the length of the game (or, at least, this unnecessary rule), would have overshadowed the gameplay.  Fortunately, I was able to convince the publisher to change the rules again at the last minute.

There are other examples where a game could have avoided unnecessary criticism if I had only been shown the graphics and/or rules ahead of time.

Contracts are, naturally, the most direct way publishers show that they value their game designers.  It is a sign of professionalism, then, to offfer reasonable contracts, which typically include: an advance on royalties (at least $500-$1000, depending on the size of the game and first print run), standard royalties (at least 5% of the net income), and a deadline for publication (not more than 2 years).  There should also be clauses in the contract that revert the rights back to the designer if the game is not published when promised, it is no longer in a publisher’s catalogue, or it is selling poorly or is liquidated.  For more information on contract details, the international Game Designer’s Association (Spielautorenzunft) has excellent material available to members.  The 60 Euro fee for a 1-year membership is worth it just to have access to the standard contracts and advice.

When releasing new games, it is important for publishers to recognize designers whenever and wherever possible.  This should not be limited to putting their names on the box covers, but also in their brochures, flyers, and on their company web pages.  Alea has designer profiles on its web page, for example, while Hans im Glück has photos of the designers of its games along with short biographies on the sides of the game boxes.  Giving credit to game designers shows that a publisher values them. And these things are such small gestures that add very little extra cost to the final production.

In Closing...
Most established hobby game publishers have built their reputations on good relationships with freelance game designers.  They demonstrate professionalism when communicating and collaborating, and they reward their designers through their contracts and through various other forms of recognition.  If you are a small publisher aspiring to find your niche in a very competitive market, you can attract good designs by quickly establishing a good reputation among game designers.  And if you are a game designer, do not sell yourself short by signing with a company that acts unprofessionally.


Peer said...

Id like to add one more point: If you reject a design you should at least write a few lines why you reject it. It happend to me twice that I got a prtotype back without knowing if it doesnt fit the program of the publisher, if they simply didnt like it or if there was adifferent reason to turn it down. It is tremendiously helpful for a designer to get a note (of course its even better to recieve detailed feedback, but even a short note is better than none).
Its also a sign of respect towards the author.

jeffinberlin said...