After A Publisher Comes Knocking

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“Yeah, well, so, the thing blue should do is… ah frack, lemme figure that out.”

As a first-time designer, one of the big questions I’ve always had is what the publishing process looks like once a design is picked up by a publisher. This summer, I got my first glance into that world.

This year’s Protospiel event in Ann Arbor was a pretty big success for me. I tabled my game Valour twice, once with a big name in the tabletop publishing space and two other designers. After a game full of the most lighthearted but over-the-top shit-talking I’ve experienced in quite some time, the publisher indicated that it was something he might be interested in publishing…(!) We spoke a few more times throughout the weekend, and we settled on a course of action. I imagine this process is similar for most publishers, so I’m putting it here, in case it will be valuable for anyone else.

I needed to get him a copy to test with, and since my proto is totally custom, I didn’t have an easy to make a one-off. I worked up a PnP (Print & Play) order to get it assembled and delivered. I used AdMagic, but ended up being disappointed with the print job on the board, and I had some other snags along the way. Should have just used The Game Crafter in the first place (Sorry JT! I’ve learned my lesson.) The timeline on this involved getting it delivered to him before GenCon, as this would give him the highest density of testers he trusted all at once to beat it up.

A quick note on vocab here, because the board game industry calls things a little differently than some other verticals I’ve interacted with: what I’m doing on Valour is called design, the crafting of the mechanics, systems, and player interactions. A developer is the person or team who beats the snot out of  a designer’s prototype/design/concept to iron out any issues they can find, so that the publisher can manufacture and ship a solid game. (That is, after the publisher hires an artist to do the game’s graphic design.)

I’ve written before about how a designer can expect the feedback to vary from gamers v. seasoned testers v. designers; it should come as no surprise that feedback from publishers and their development teams is its own category as well. As GenCon began, I started receiving text messages with questions about rules: “Should Caesar be able to move from here [with photo]?” “Does X scenario really lead to Y outcome? Feels broken.” “Question about scoring… what’s to stop someone from doing Z?”

It was always clear when the game was on the table, as the texts came in rapid-fire. Each comment and question is a perfect checklist item for future design changes. I’ve correlated the different kinds of feedback to interior design; gamers at playtests say “I think this wall should be red”; designers say “Let’s see what the flow is like if we knock this wall out”; turns out developers say things like “So, I was able to pull the sofa partway up the stairs but it got stuck and now everyone is trapped on the landing.” They look at the game in a completely different light, because they need to know that when it hits the market, there is no crazy degenerate strategy that could accidentally ruin (or on purpose, if you invite ruiners to your game nights) the game experience for someone who has just shelled out their hard-earned money for it.

In the end, this particular publisher chose to take a pass on Valour, for the moment. He felt as though there were still enough corner-cases in the rules that they spent too high a percent of their testing sessions arguing over specifics, instead of playing. His rejection was actually quite encouraging, however, as he remained excited about the theme, the mechanics around Caesar’s invasion, and some of the unique ways in which players interact. This experience was also excellent, as Valour underwent three playtests which I neither organized nor attended, and the feedback was top-notch. And now that I’ve seen how this part of the process works, I have a much better idea of what publisher are looking for, and I can hopefully get an eye for ‘heading off’ the types of issues they find.