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Musings of a Would-Be Game Designer

The Best Laid Plans...

by Mike Martinez
Dec 02,2003

 

Musings of a Would-Be Game Designer

By Mike Martinez
mike@spacebuckler.com

The Best Laid Plans...

In my day job as a business reporter, I get a plethora of calls every day from folks who want to talk about their products. Not to stereotype, but generally these calls are from perky 20-something women in PR and marketing who seek to convince me that the product they're pimping is the next best thing since sliced bread.

I dread those calls. They're usually only a step above telemarketing, and some are even a step below. Occasionally, I'll get someone who knows that they're taking up valuable time on deadline and offers to e-mail me instead. God bless 'em.

Yet as much as I find these calls time-consuming and somewhat annoying, there's a purpose there. Certainly, only one in a million is indeed better than sliced bread, but a few aren't bad, and it's good that someone brought them to my attention so I could tell my readers about them. And a few are story-worthy because they're actually pretty bad.

Say the word marketing and many people will cringe. In most of the capitalist world, we live in a whirlwind of advertising, marketing and product placement. It often makes me want to move back to Vermont, where billboards are banned and there are only a handful of media outlets. But like it or not, marketing is important, especially if you're hoping to publish a game. What's the use of putting a game out there if nobody even knows about it?

Marketing was a big impetus in starting this column. The team over at Twisted Paradigm Press believes strongly in our first game, Spacebuckler, and it was very important to me to get the word out. The opportunity to write this column came in September, a bit earlier than perhaps was wise to start marketing, but I jumped on it and have no regrets.

However, I do believe our marketing has led us to put our cart before the horse with regard to Spacebuckler, and I hope that our mistakes can help other would-be publishers avoid the same pitfalls.

Getting the Word Out

Invariably, you'll end up starting your marketing machine before your game is done, and that's not a bad thing. Anticipation drives sales, and sales let you earn enough money, ideally, to publish more games. So how do you go about it?

Your Web Site: The Web is a beautiful thing. Not only are we publishing our game on RPGnow, but we also have our very own site at http://www.spacebuckler.com as well. I launched the site just as this column premiered in September in the hopes that people would read my alleged words of wisdom on game development, then surf on over to the site to learn more about the game.

It worked. We get an average of about 20-30 visitors a day - not a huge number, but enough to make me realize we've drummed up some interest. We've also updated the site somewhat regularly as well, letting slip some setting and mechanics details to further entice people and drum up interest.

Gaming Sites: People come to RPG.net to find out the latest on gaming, so when the opportunity to write a column came up, it was a perfect match. But, as much as this is a really good site, there are certainly others out there that should not be ignored. So whenever we've had news or a major update to the Spacebuckler Web site, we've sent that information to other sites as well, including GamingReport.com, ENworld, RPGnews.com and Mortality.net. All of these sites, and others, have posted news about our game and our little company, such as it is, and we've seen a lot of traffic head to our Web site right after posting our news.

A nice bonus with many of these sites is that their news is republished all over the Web, from local gaming boards to university role-playing club sites. A Google search on Spacebuckler even turned up mentions on gaming sites in Japan and Europe! Needless to say, we were thrilled.

Mailing Lists: So you have a Web site, and you've put the word out so that people can come visit your little enclave on the Internet. Now you have to draw them in and keep them informed. That's where our mailing list comes in. Between our official mailing list and folks who inquired about our open playtest call a few months back, we have over 60 people who get semi-regular updates about the game. These are people, by the way, who have opted in, so they really want to know about how the game is coming along. A few have even volunteered to help with design, illustration and other things, because they like the idea so much.

Mailing lists are key to marketing because you'll end up with an audience you know is interested in your game. We certainly plan on giving our subscribers additional freebies and even a discount when the game comes out. It's a way to generate good will that cannot be ignored.

Advertising: Ah...the big kahuna. Can you afford ads? Chances are, we won't be able to. Advertising online is notoriously iffy with regards to the return on your investment. Sure, you can buy 10,000 banner ad impressions on big sites, like those mentioned above, for a minimal investment. But you're still reaching a fairly small audience - one that you should already have listening through your news posts. Down the road, we might break down and buy a few impressions, but only to show that we're "big" enough to do so, and thus worthy of people's attention. For now...we'll stick with the free promotions.

Print ads, of course, are far more expensive, though the returns can be somewhat greater simply because they reach more people. An ad in major gaming magazines can run into the thousands of dollars for a very small ad on a back page - but again, there's no guarantee that you'll make enough in sales to recoup the investment, especially if you're publishing electronically via PDF, as we are. We're still on the fence about print ads, but we're keeping the option open if Spacebuckler performs respectably through RPGnow.com.

The Dangers of Overpromising

As I mentioned, marketing takes up a lot of time and effort. I originally envisioned starting our marketing in October, but again, this column was a great opportunity. However, writing this column, updating the Web site, posting our news and updating our mailing list subscribers eats up far more time than I had originally envisioned. I don't update the site and post news as much, as a result, which isn't great, especially if people come looking for new stuff.

And, of course, we're still putting the polish on the writing in Spacebuckler, getting our art done and getting our layout templates set up. Plus, everybody involved in this game has a full-time job, families, lives, etc. And therein lies the problem.

When I set up a production and marketing schedule this summer, I thought we would be in fine shape for a Dec. 23 release, even with launching the marketing early. But I made a rookie mistake in not building in an "oops" buffer into the schedule, excited as I was at possibly launching the game before the end of the year. Everything pretty much had to hit on schedule for us to make our release date.

That hasn't happened.

It started with little things. One more week for illustrations? No problem. A mother-in-law visit disrupted a carefully conceived weekend of full-on writing. We had to go in and revamp the Alchemy rules. What if the Venusians had shamans? By October, I could see things starting to drag. I adjusted the schedule, but felt we could still make the deadline. The press releases went out as planned.

Then, last month, just as we got three strong groups of playtesters ready to go, our Web host encountered some major server problems. For nearly two weeks, I couldn't upload or e-mail large files...like the chapters that our playtesters needed. I gave them an extension on their playtest time that would bump up against our final proofing for the book itself.

Then last week, real life came crashing into our plans like an asteroid into a Mercuryman's hull. I got a wonderful job offer in New York that could take my real-life career to a new level. I live in Washington, D.C.

After the euphoria wore off, I looked at Spacebuckler again. Most chapters are in the final rough-draft stage. A few need more work. Art is still trickling in. Layout hasn't moved beyond a few page templates. Dec. 23 loomed.

There was no way in hell we could get this done in time. So after consulting with my colleagues John, Drew, Wendy, Christian and Patrick, I decided to announce that we would postpone the introduction of our game until the spring. Naturally, I'm not happy at all about this. But as John so eloquently put it, "It's better to get slapped for being late than for putting out a pile of $#!% on time." No truer words were ever said.

So today, you'll find an announcement on all of the aforementioned sites, sharing with the world that we're postponing the launch of Spacebuckler. We're being up front and honest about it, and we're going to continue to provide previews and updates until we get this puppy out the door.

Lessons Learned

There are a couple of things here that hopefully can help others who want to self-publish their own games. First off, build some buffer time into your schedule! I made up my schedule as if all we had to do was our day jobs. Life throws all sorts of curveballs at you on a daily basis, and scheduling should account for that. If I had it to do all over again, I would have taken my schedule and doubled all the time necessary to get things done. Maybe tripled in a few cases.

Secondly, I would have started the full-on marketing push, including playtesting, far later than I did. Yes, you'll certainly end up marketing while you finish your writing and layout, but I dove in far too soon, even as much as I actually enjoy writing this column and getting all the good feedback from everybody. Our marketing got ahead of the game, and we ended up overpromising on our delivery date, joining a long list of fine companies - Wizards of the Coast, Microsoft, etc. - that fell behind on production schedules and promised delivery dates. It would have been better to start marketing after all our chapters were in final draft form.

So how are we going to fix things? For one, we're going to take our sweet time. In our press release, I committed to releasing Spacebuckler in the spring. That's anywhere between March and early June, giving us enough wiggle room to make sure we have an outstanding product on the shelves rather than a rush job.

I'm also going to live with my marketing miscues by continuously updating our Web site and mailing lists. I'm going to make it up to our playtesters somehow, probably by giving them some freebies if they hang in there until we're ready for them again. I'm going to continue writing this column, because I still have a boatload of things that I can write about that will hopefully provide interesting reading. I'm still amazed at the traction the Spacebuckler concept has had with gamers. We have a lot of interest, and it's now up to me to work really hard to keep that interest high while we get our house in order.

So there you have it. Someone once wrote to me after reading this column and mentioned how we really seem to have our act together. Well...not always. We're rookies at the game-publishing biz, but we're learning, and we still have faith that Spacebuckler will redefine the words "kick-ass" in gaming.

Eventually.

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