You run a small family owned game publisher, Enginuity, with several interesting titles. How did you get started?
I have been inventing games since I was a child. Perhaps it is because I did not have very many friends as a child, I created games to amuse myself and played them against the virtual opponents in my mind. While the games invented during my childhood are not exactly of commercial quality, one of them was published in a slightly modified form.
I had invented a game with a standard deck of playing cards (all I had available) that I called Spoil 21. The 21 came from the game of 21 (ie. blackjack) and the "Spoil" was because the object was to make piles totalling exactly 21 and spoiling your opponent’s attempts to do so. When I started publishing, the first game that I published on my own was "Stack 21" – although I added some non-standard cards and expanded the rules a little – but it’s 75% the same as I invented as a child. All of my other games were invented as an adult, but Stack 21 is an exception. The game is not currently in print but will probably return in a few years.
I was working as an electrical engineer and while the pay was good and I enjoyed engineering, the company that I worked for was abusive to its employees (psychologically, of course, not physically). I decided that I wanted to do something else so on the side I started to pursue my dream of many decades. Before Stack 21 I licensed a game called Diangle to another company, my first Enginuity product. Diangle is no longer in print but is again available as part of the Spicy Dice book.
From time to time we need something outside ourselves to make changes, and apparently your former occupation did just that. I assume you got Enginuity up and running in 1997, is it yielding enough these days or are you running the company part time?
I have periodically done some engineering during leaner times to pay the bills. Now, however, I am also doing some consulting work with other game companies, There are many individuals out there with great product ideas but no knowledge about how to make them a reality. We did just this for a small company called Mad Cave Bird Games – they found us and hired us to manage the production of their color Sudoku game called ColorKu. Already in the first year over 25,000 units have been produced. I do get a lot of calls and emails from people who would like help producing their products but the reality is that it does take a fair bit of capital to get a game into production and there are really no shortcuts to that.
Mad Cave Bird must be happy! I would assume 25 000 copies makes a game feasible also in the US. What questions are the most common when designers make contact?
The most common question, by far, is whether or not Enginuity accepts external game submissions for licensing. A second common question is simply "how" to publish a game, as if the answer were a simple cookbook answer. Sometimes the inventors say that they are looking for a development partner, which usually, after some discussions, turns out to mean that they have no financial assets and are looking for financing for their game. In some cases, an individual has already produced a few thousand copies of their game and is looking for help selling it, asking if we will add it to our catalog. More typically, though, inventors have a playable prototype, not good enough to show at a fair, but good enough to playtest, and want to go to the next step.
I expect these questions to be rather universal, but to what extent do you provide service to people raising these questions? On your homepage you have several good advice to designers.
We do provide services to individuals and companies wanting to get a product into production. In fact, we recently provided concept-to-warehouse service to the inventors of ColorKu, where we handled everything – artwork, intellectual property, sell sheets, tooling, sourcing, manufacturing, shipping, and safety standards compliance, and ocean freight, customs, and even moving their container shipments right to the warehouse. The only thing we can’t do is fund people’s concepts. Unfortunately there is no shortcut to the money is required to bringing a game to market.
With all that happening, there will be little time left over for new games by Enginuity, I would imagine. And, to my knowledge, you have only published games of your own design. Have you published any other games through other publishers than Diangle? Or did you quickly find out that you wanted to publish on your own?
Yes, there are always more games in the planning stages than there is time for. However we have several new games in development. Tongue Tanglers, our tongue-twister game, will be available this fall, as will RoPaSi, our new rock-paper-scissors based game. Also, Target and Bid-It are being repackaged as Texas Rummy and Texas Bluff.
To date, I have only published games of my own design. However, we have completed, but not yet announced the winner of, the Spicy Dice game inventor competition. That will cause a outside game to be published in the next edition of Spicy Dice.
I had originally wanted just to invent but there were too many problems. Due to financial problems on the part of the publisher, we were not paid for Diangle, although we settled with the company that bought the first publisher and did receive a partial payment. Our next deal fell apart when the buyer turned out to be less than scrupulous, and it caused a very well-known (and very honest) publisher to back out of a deal for the game when the legal rights to the game were in question. This was enough to get me to want to publish in the way that I felt I had control over the final product.
So you have had your share of ”bad deals”, which by the way you seem to have in common with several designers… But, I have heard few complaints, so far, from European designers. Are these issues a common problem for designers? Do you have many designers turning to you for legal advice in this respect? One thing is not getting payment, but a totally different matter is the “theft” of ideas.
Fear of theft is far greater problem for designers than theft itself. In the case of Diangle, there was no theft, just a publisher than ran short of money.
I do get requests for advise, my most common advice is that the biggest value in a game is the trademark of a successful game – for instance, the trademarks Monopoly or Magic the Gathering can be used to sell games and non-game products that are not identical to the games for which they are known.
I also read a lot of newsgroups where inventors share advice, but I think much of it is either wrong or counter-productive. Most inventors in the US think that patents offer the only real protection for games, but I feel that they don’t offer protection except against a complete duplication of your game. I have recommended patents in only one case, where an inventor had a specific element that was unique and potentially valuable.
The fear of theft of ideas cuts both ways – the inventor is afraid of having his or her idea stolen, and the large company is even more afraid that they will look at and reject the inventor’s idea, only to be sued years later when one element of the idea appears in an independently developed product. This is why most large companies do not look at inventions from the public.
The reality is that many people will invent the same thing. Here is an true example that I have never mentioned before. We have had a game called Tylz for many years. The original version was cardboard and frankly the pieces slid around alot. I got the idea to do it in plastic, with plastic pieces with grooves in them that would key into a board with raised row and column bars. Unfortunately the tooling quotes were too high for me to afford and so I did the game in magnetics instead.
Of course by now you recognise that another company had a similar idea for their product and Blokus is a huge success for them. (Blokus looks a bit like Tylz, but the games are quite different). I never showed my plastic idea to the Blokus-people, they never showed theirs to me. — But imagine for a moment that one of us had shown their proposed game to the other and been rejected. What would happen next? One of us might have sued someone else, certain that their "idea" was stolen.
The best advice for inventors is not to fear theft or your ideas. Companies are usually honest about paying royalities. The best advice for companies is a bit trickier. It depends on their situation. One possibility is a "clean room" approach where a gatekeeper, who is told what to look for, reviews each selection and decides what to forward on. The gatekeeper is not be permitted to disclose anything about an idea unless they used their judgement to forward it, at which point the company would be required to treat it as confidential. The gatekeeper would know what the company has planned and is working on and could not disclose it, but would reject an idea either because it is already in the works or because it is not a good fit. Ravenburger is doing something like this for new inventors, though some inventors complain that they are required to pay for the evaluations done by the agent.
Yes, I am aware of the Ravensburger philosophy. As a former music industry professional, I was actually surprised of how open the board game industry was when I started getting behind the scenes. Also because the game publishers, historically, were linked to book publishers, which more or less have perfected the agent profession. To what I understand the largest game publishers (Hasbro and Mattel) don’t look at prototypes from the public at all. They develop the games in-house or request a prototype from a specific designer. What steps do you recommend for somebody with an idea?
Actually both Mattel and Hasbro will sometimes look at prototypes from the public – I have presented to both of them before I was known at all, and they sometimes attend shows where such presentations can be made. But mostly they prefer to develop in-house.
The issue with "having an idea" is that it isn’t really enough. You do want a prototype, so that it can be tested – this is true for both games and toys. Once you think you are ready, find a few companies that accept submissions. It doesn’t do much good to address companies that are too far from your product idea. For instance, Enginuity does not publish role-playing or fantasy-science-fiction games, so we would not be a good company to approach with those product ideas. Similarly, proposing a children’s educational game to a company in the adventure gaming industry wastes their time and yours. You can try to self-publish a small number of your games to get a "buzz" going. In the same way that Mattel just purchased Out of the Box’s flagship Apples to Apples product, a known quantity is much easier to license than an unknown one.
Inventors should not concentrate very much time or money on artwork as publishers will likely change it anyway. It’s best to show a clean concept with a good "hook" and let the publisher visualize it as they would want it in their line.
Also, the letters you write along with your game should be brief and explain the unique points of your game – not tell the publisher that you know their business better than they do. Here is an actual email I received, with some parts omitted. Besides the fact that it was way too long and rambling, it tried to tell me that they were offering me a chance to succeed if only I would be smart enough to license their idea. (note – I used … where I removed one or more sentences).
"My name is *** … . You can use any type of wood to make these and make them as simple or elegant as you would prefer. … These are very exciting and send cheers and oohs and aahs out left and right. … Just the amount and quality of these games could be very lucrative on the market. … I consider myself a very knowledgeable and professional gamer. These games are really incredible. In my professional opinion I would say that almost every household in the world would want at least one of these. That is a lot of games. You could profit one dollar from each and have a very popular game company. .. These are a must see for any game company. Revolutionizing the game world is not out of the question if these games are marketed right. … Once again I cannot stress enough at how new, fun, and exciting these games are. Become a leader in the game industry."
This is only about 1/3 of the total email which was much hyperbole and some description. Notice how the author, in trying to license me his idea, is telling me over and over that he knows the market better than I do, that I am not popular or a leader. He then adds a claim that every household in the world will want one (how many billion units is that?) and that I should aim for $1 profit per unit. Now perhaps this is true, but will this make me or anyone else want to communicate with him? I fear that it I even reply, he will not give up and continually tell me how successful I will be if I license his idea.
So the real advice here is to keep it short, tell me about your idea, and don’t tell me how to run a business. If I had a great movie idea, I might tell Steven Spielberg about it and ask him to buy my idea, but I would not tell him how to make the film, how much to pay his actors, and how my idea is better than anything he has done in his career.
What you, basically, is saying is to behave and present yourself and your product with normal manners. But, to what degree should the prototype be ”finished”? I don’t mean graphics, but rather testing and balancing?
The prototype should be finished enough to be actually played with, whether tt’s a toy or game. For example, a game board drawn by hand on cardboard is often sufficient, dice painted by hand (if they have custom faces) or even a standard deck of playing cards marked up with the game cards is fine. If your game has play money, you can use Monopoly money. If you envision your game with playing pieces in the shape of monsters or soliders, chess pieces are fine. You don’t need a plastic lance or thunderbolt – you can have a small piece of paper with the words "Lance" or "Thunderbolt" on it.
However, you should present the ENTIRE game. If 400 card are needed, and you’ve only written 25 cards, that’s OK, you can include blank paper so I get the idea, or otherwise just explain it clearly. Remember that a first playtest of a game by a publisher is not likely to be a full-blown game. At least include all of the different components in some representation.
The one place you should be very thorough is the rules. They should be clear and preferably SHORT. If I see short rules, I know the game is easy to learn. Illustrations are a good idea. Remember that you won’t be in the room when we playtest, so your instructions have to explain themselves. I want to know in the first few minutes that your product has promise.
To clarify on the concept of manners and behavior, I guess what I was trying to say is "tell me WHY your game is great, and HOW it is unique. Don’t tell me that it IS great, that I will make alot of money selling your game. Also, if you’ve invented 50 games, don’t try to sell me all 50 games first – pick the one that’s best for me (or a few if they form a legitimate family of games). If I license it and it succeeds, I’ll be looking at your other products, don’t worry.
I don’t doubt publishers getting back for more if they have taken up a game that succeeds 🙂 I think will let you get back to work, and wish you good luck in your first licensing agreement. Thank you so much for your tips and hints on presenting prototypes!
I just had look at my top 10 list on my site. I think that I’ve incorporated my best advice there.
The most important one, in my opinion, is the one about doing something, but not everything, differently, to create a unique game.