Welcome to Unscripted – a lighthearted, unrehearsed, and sometimes silly Q&A series with Rose Gauntlet Entertainment founders and tabletop game designers Isaac Vega and Lindsey Rode.
In this edition of Unscripted, we’re talking about our approach to publishing games, including what we look for in new designs, what we hope to see more of, and *cringe* game pitch horror stories.
What's it like transitioning back and forth between wearing the designer and publisher hats?
Lindsey: Switching between the publisher and designer hats, I don't think is as difficult as switching between the designer and the business owner hat [future blog idea?]. There's so much about publishing that feeds back into the design and it's super beneficial for anyone who wants to be a great designer to, if it all possible, be part of the publishing process at least once because it affects so many of your decisions – like what kind of card count you might be looking for in your product, the type or amount of materials, stuff like that. So, for me it's actually a pretty natural transition going from one to the other because so much about design, when you get to the higher levels is thinking about things like how it'll be produced later. And I think it makes for a better game designer.
Isaac: Honestly for me, part of the reason that we wanted our own studio was so that we could go ahead and tackle this problem specifically.
Having the ability to be a publisher and designer is incredibly freeing in a lot of ways because it allows us to really take those moments in the design in which we feel like, “Hey, this is gonna be a really good choice – let's trust ourselves, let's move forward with it,” where sometimes a publisher can get in the way of those moments.
“That's too cost prohibitive. That's too many components. We haven't really seen that done before, so the factory's going to have to do this and this and this.” There are just so many different things that publishers can put on top of designers that can be limiting to the design itself.
So, combining the designer and publisher roles really does give us a lot more freedom to go ahead and take those tools and adjust them when necessary to fit the design. But it's also very important to still think as a publisher and make sure that you're considering all of those potential challenges in order to make sure that you're not producing something that just isn't possible to bring to market.
It can be difficult, but we've worked in the industry for a while now where we didn't have the ability to sit in the publisher seat. And now that we do, I feel like it's a lot better and I would not want to go back. So, it's maybe not as difficult for us because that's part of the reason that we decided to start this company in the first place.
What do you look for when it comes to games you want to publish?
Isaac: So right now, what I've been telling prospective designers that are pitching games to us is that we are really looking for a few key things.
Number one, we want to produce something that's we feel is worth existing in this space. There are so many different games out there, so we want to produce something that's not only fun, interesting, or new but also has something to say. We also want to be sure that what you're trying to say with your design, the purpose behind the game, is something that we're going to be proud to represent for the duration of the existence of our company, so essentially an evergreen title.
The second thing is that we are considering price points very heavily right now. We’re looking for something around the $50 range that we can produce and release at that MSRP or lower, preferably lower because that's kind of what the market is looking for right now. However, depending on the game, we're willing to put that aside. If we feel that the game is going to have enough of an audience that it's going to merit that larger price point. Obviously with Wild Gardens, we are currently doing that, so we are willing to put price point aside if we need to.
And then third, is the designer someone that we're excited to work with? Working with a designer is kind of like getting involved in a long-term relationship. So, we want to make sure that we're going to be working with someone that we can see ourselves working with long-term and hopefully see not just one of their designs, but multiple moving forward. We're a small studio and we're a small team, and we probably work closer with designers than a lot of other studios do. Therefore, a designer being someone that we feel is talented but also has good rapport with us is important.
I know you had a lot of positive interactions with designers at Gen Con, but in general, what's one thing you want to see more from designers seeking to have their games published?
Lindsey: I have two things that I really want to see from designers. The first is I really want to see that the designers are really excited about what they're making. I want that energy level to be high, and I want them to be just thrilled to show me this weird, cool idea or system that they've made. I think that's really important. Going back to what Isaac said in the previous question, the process of taking a design all the way from its concept to the final product is a really long process. So, you're going to want that passion and energy because it's going to get you through some of the doldrums when you're tweaking the system, when you're play testing, when you face those roadblocks, that excitement is going to be really important to take the product all the way to the finish line.
The second thing is I really like seeing weird themes and ideas. That was something exciting about this last Gen Con, we saw so many people with themes that I had never seen before. And some of them were hilarious, and some of them were really thoughtful, and all of them were just very original. I get really excited when someone tells me a theme or explains how they visualize the game and it's something super unique that I haven't seen before. That really gets me energized to learn more about the game.
Isaac: Those are both great points. One more thing that I would hope to see from game designers seeking to have their game published is just being willing to experiment with new mechanics or wacky contraptions into gameplay.
I've really enjoyed seeing people play with the medium as far as what they can bring into games and utilizing things that people wouldn't really think could be a board game. Like one of the games that we saw at Gen Con was, Oh No, Volcano and it had this Pachinko-style aspect to the entire gameplay that was built really interestingly and done well. Stuff like that, where you take things that are maybe known and then bring them into the tabletop game space in a way that you don't quite expect. I would love to see more of that kind of experimentation.
As a follow-up, what about from a technical perspective? Is there a level to how polished a design should be before you want to see it?
Isaac: I'm not so concerned about it being perfectly technically executed or even being the most well tested or refined gameplay-wise. What I'm more concerned about is whether the designer is willing to take our feedback and keep trying to perfect the game.
We see a lot of people that can be really rigid and where the game may work, but just might not work for us. It can be mechanically sound, but the fun isn't quite there yet, so we may have different suggestions or different ways to take it. What I'd love to see, like what Lindsay said, are designers that are not just talented, but are also passionate about what they're doing and are willing to put in the work to go that extra mile to achieve a great game. That drive to continue to improve is more important to me than necessarily coming to me with something perfect right from the get-go.
Time for some slight embarrassment – can you think of a time where you really bombed in a pitch meeting, either as the designer pitching their game or as the publisher taking the pitch?
Lindsey: Yeah. The worst game pitch I ever did as a designer was years ago. One of the big problems was I didn’t know I was in a game pitch.
It was a late night at a con and a big group of us were playing party games and we ran out of stuff to play. I had this idea that I'd been kicking around called The Sign of Evil, a game where you had to figure out what monster everyone was by asking each other questions and then make a sign with your hands that represent the evil figure. For instance, if you knew someone was a vampire, you could point at them and pretend to stab yourself in the chest to represent staking a vampire, or if they were a werewolf, you could point your hand like a gun to represent a silver bullet – stuff like that.
So, I had this game idea and I was like, you know what, we can just try it. It's really easy – I'll just grab some scraps of paper, and write the stuff down –mind you, I've never been outside my own head before with this. So, I start doing that and then Isaac walks in with like the entire French Canadian team of F2Z Entertainment [since acquired by Asmodee]. They sit down and they're like, “Oh, let's play this game.”
I learned two things. One, this game wasn't ready to show another living person–and two, there was a lot of issues with this game. Two, the fairytale lore for French Canadians is very different than that of Lindsey’s Philadelphia America.
So, all of the things I assumed everyone generally knows, like how werewolves would die from a silver bullet, or vampires only came out at night, etc., was apparently not true across different countries. It just ended with me slowly collecting these scraps of paper and being like, “I apologize for this entire experience.”
So that was a disaster, which normally wouldn't have been a big deal, but that was my introduction to the higher-ups of F2Z and to this day, still my most embarrassing pitch story.
Isaac: I have an embarrassing story when someone was pitching something to me. It wasn't their fault at all – they were doing a great job. It was like day three of a con for me, and I was just so sleep deprived.
It was like three o'clock in the evening, I hadn’t eaten, and I could not keep my eyes open. I'm pretty sure I fell asleep for at least two minutes during the pitch. I felt SO bad. I have no idea what his game was about. Nothing was coming into my mind. I could not process what was going on, but I knew he was doing a good job. So, if you are the designer that this happened to you, I am so sorry. It was a time when I did not know how to prepare well for cons. And now we do somewhat of a better job, but cons can be brutal. If you don't get enough sleep and you don't eat anything, it can really wear you out.
But as far as like a time that I pitched something, I don't really regret any of my pitches. I feel like they've all helped me get to a better place. I take constructive criticism well, at least I think so, so then it just becomes an opportunity for me to improve which is what I’m hoping for.
For early designers – anything that you get back, just try to improve upon it and see if it's the thing that you want to go ahead and move forward with in your game. Because at the end of the day, you're the one who's making the decision as to what you want to present.
But yeah, I can't really think of anything that I was super embarrassed about or bombed. I'm sure other people could tell you of a time that maybe I just didn't process it in that moment.
As a final point, what’s the process a designer should follow who wants to pitch a new game to you?
Isaac: If you want to present a new game to us, the best way to go ahead and do that is to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your interest and include a quick sell sheet on your game, and preferably a two-to-five-minute video with game highlights. The video doesn't necessarily have to be how to play everything perfect; just include the core things that make your game interesting and different.
That's enough to get us to stage two, which is when we decide whether we want to play the game. From that point, we'll either schedule a digital meeting with you to play on Tabletopia or Tabletop Simulator, or we can try and schedule a meeting at an upcoming convention so we can play it in person.
Those are the best ways to get your info over to us and for us to play your game. However, I know attending conventions or making a digital version of your product can be difficult, so a third option is to mail your prototype to us. If you're going to do that though, I highly suggest to pitch your game to us in the first quarter of the year, otherwise we really don't have the time to check something out like that. We're usually too busy with shows, game production, etc. from April all the way up to December. From January to March though, we’re usually home and can look at a physical prototype.
Lindsey: Agreed, and all the above, and to really hammer this point – please send a sell sheet. I’m the one who reviews submissions, and if you don't send a sell sheet, I won't look at it. I'll just tell you to please get a sell sheet and then send it back to me. Sell sheets really help me understand what the game is and to feel confident moving forward in our process.
Also, like Isaac said, sending a video is fantastic. I love that. It really helps in identifying what’s interesting about your prototype and makes it easier to bring to and explain to our team.
Need help creating a sell sheet or just want to see some examples? Check out the following resources:
- How to Make a Professional looking Sell Sheet [Rock Manor Games]
- Sell Sheets for Board Games – A Very Brief Overview [Dranda Games]
- How To Make A Board Game Sell Sheet And Pitch Video [Big Potato Games]
- How to Build a Sell Sheet for Your Game [Games for Learning]
- Sell Sheets for Game Designers 101 [Games for Learning]
- Evolve Your Sell-Sheet! [Mr. Boss’ Design Lair]