I’m not tied to a publisher, and from my Kickstarter Curmudgeon pieces it’s obvious I clearly don’t have any idea of what kind of marketing results in sales, but I have been in the process of judging games for a competition and I’ve been to a couple of conventions recently. From this experience, I think people who are creating and trying to sell their game as something fun to play could really use some work on the selling part. As a reviewer I desperately want to find the next game that will be truly exciting and great, but frequently I think their creators don’t understand what might make their game compelling. For such people, I hope this is helpful–an assortment of comments, peeves, and pieces of advice about making your game stand out to someone like me.
1. Make an interesting game
This should go without saying, but try to make something which is actually interesting, and not simply a rehash of what we’ve seen before. I’m not saying that every game needs to have some sort of high concept novel idea behind it, but there should be something about the game that will grab my interest. If it’s a 2 player mage combat card game, you’d better figure out some way to make it stand apart from MtG or the hundreds of games that have already taken inspiration from it. I want to know what brings you back to the game, and if there isn’t anything that brings you back other than “it’s mine” then you need to recognize that other people won’t have that novelty. All they’ll have is the game.
2. Tell me about the decisions
Good games are a series of interesting decisions. They’re not a great theme, or wonderful art, though those things can certainly enhance the game. But when your pitch is entirely focused on the presentation of the game and the theme rather than what the players will actually be doing, I don’t get any real information.
For example, if your game says that I’ll be exploring, recruiting allies, and fighting enemies, that doesn’t tell me much about what I’ll actually be doing in the game. That could describe a range of games from Mage Knight to Scythe to Firefly to Star Realms.
The appeal of Mage Knight isn’t that you’re doing those things, but that you’re working every turn with a fresh puzzle brought to you by what cards you draw, trying to gain better cards while not taking too many wounds. It’s about choosing between short term and long term gains and setting yourself up for big turns when you need them, all through the grind of dealing with what you’re dealt.
So tell me about the decisions I’ll be making, not just what my avatar in the game will be thematically doing. Please. I want to know what your game is actually about.
3. Don’t say things that don’t mean anything
“Deceptively strategic” is a phrase I’d be fine never seeing again. What’s wrong with being explicitly strategic? My favorite games are all proud of their strategy. What are you trying to hide the strategy behind?
Also, saying exactly how many variations in setup your game has is essentially useless. There are more shuffle combinations in a deck of playing cards than stars in existence, but I don’t think anyone would argue that Hearts is more variable than Cosmic Encounter. The key aspect is the quality of the variations–how much they change the game and your decisions within the game. Plus, after you get to, like, 100, the number simply means “a lot” and is unnecessary.
4. Avoid making me skeptical
If your game is a random luck-fest with all kinds of dice, wear that proudly. Let me know that’s what I’m getting. If it’s another take-that/UNO variant or an adult party card game with monochromatic art, do your thing, but I’ll probably not be interested. But if you’re got your eurogame out with its cubes and economic systems, and you all of a sudden tell me that something critical is determined by a single die roll, or if I spot a “lose your turn” card, I’m going to be immediately skeptical.
Maybe you have a good reason for such a chaotic element in your game, but a relatively experienced gamer like me is going to want an explanation for it. If you can’t tell me why that doesn’t make the game worse, then maybe reconsider the mechanism or change how you present the game.
5. Use schemas
Part of this is reading your audience, of course, but if you’re pitching this to a publisher, use basic game terms that mean things to short-cut information. It’s a lot quicker to tell someone that your game is a worker placement game with x, y, z elements than it is to describe everything in mechanical detail. You can’t necessarily assume someone working for a publisher will be familiar with a particular game you reference, but you are probably safe with major mechanisms and genres.
One of the best books I’ve ever read is called Made to Stick and it talks a lot about utilizing schemas–things that create familiar images in the listener’s mind. I highly recommend it to everyone.
I’m sure I’ll have more things to rant about as I keep hearing game pitches and judging contests, but these seem to be the biggest offenders I’ve seen so far. Again, I’m not a publisher, and I’m sure they’d have a lot more valuable information for pitching to publishers specifically, but I think a large number of gamers would agree with what I’ve outlined.