GenCon 50 – An Unexpected Business Lesson (Guest Blog)

*Note: My friend Victor headed out to GenCon for the first time this year. The following sums up his experience at the Con, which remarkable, sounds a lot like my first time…

Gen Con 50 the first sold out Gen Con, so large that it was impossible to do or see everything in 4 days time. The crowd filled with people from all walks of life. Some stopped to describe Gen Con’s of year gone past but for many of us (myself included) this was our first Gen Con experience. And Gen Con did not disappoint. My biggest failure was not preparing for everything and starting off a step behind everyone, in terms of events or competitions or even knowing what I wanted to do.

My first Day was spent just getting to know where everything was, playing some games and meeting people. By Day 2 I was ready; I knew where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. The event was a lesson in time management and proper planning. One should not go to Gen Con without a plan there is too much to do and see. When I return to Gen Con in future years I will be a veteran. I will help newbies (like myself) navigate this wonderful paradise of gaming as Gen Con veterans did for me. But in the future down the line I recognize that I will most likely be a vendor competing to sell my wares to Con goers.

Offering a different experience for a better price than my nearest neighbors in the bazaar like aisles.

If you haven’t guessed I am one of the foolish whose passions have led me to decide to become a Game Designer. Gen Con was a lesson in the reality of the business of games for anyone going on this journey.

Before GenCon I had a game in development for about a year. My partner and I had reached the 80% mark. The 80% mark for those who don’t know is when shit gets real. We realized that we had a game but that in the scope of things we were a business. And like many people who start passion projects…we didn’t originally consider the business side of things. We were filled with love and fun for this “thing” we were making and saw the potential in taking it from a concept to a product that could put in peoples hands. But it was late into the project that some serious questions had to be answered:

How would we make this game? Who would be our partners? How much is our game worth? And (most importantly) Is this something that people will want to play?

Thankfully my partner and I reached this hump right before Gen Con. I’m sure for developers and designers like me Gen Con answers all questions, and probably will change the way you were approaching your project.

After the first day I reorganized. Everything became about learning, observing and listening to people far wiser than me. In this business you can either sell your games or become a company. There are more options but usually it falls into one of these two camps. As I walked around the exhibition hall every person became a new contact or lesson. I saw everything from very successful games to poorly marketed games. Every vendor had a different approach, some where more aggressive others waited for the merchandise to draw in customers. A few lucky vendors were sought out by the Con goers.

For me everything I learned can be summed up by 2 conversations I had.

The first conversation was with Hammerdog Games. It was a quick conversation about numbers and what does numbers mean if I went the Company route. The second conversation was with Smirk & Dagger games and it was purely a conversation on what to expect from a company if a person were to sell. These two opposite conversations set the tone for all the rest of my research and for the future of my current game.

“3 years of investment, 5 years before you break even, and 10  years before your an overnight success”

The statement above is quite scary and it was used quite effectively to prepare for the world I was entering. Taking the advice of both companies and various other. The costs of making a game yourself include Taxes, Printing, Storage, Publicity, Art, Distribution and if you get it into stores you have to know the MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price). After being advised that costs for making a game should come in at below 20% of your budget and using this number, an expected retail costs of a game being $50.

After taking a moment to write up a component list I went on a shopping trip. Because if your building a game you can find everything at Gen Con. Starting in the Artist Gallery and asking artists of various experience how much it would cast to produce 40 pieces of work. Some quoted $20 and they were often starting out looking for the exposure of a bigger project. Some prices went up to $80 but the average cost was around $40 a piece. I then found printer companies and compared prices. I spoke with Board Game Maker, and Ad Magic, and others and I complied a list of costs.

The cost depends on how much you print…your buying in bulk. And that comes with a slew of other question such as art, size, and materials. We all want to use the best materials but nothing is more sobering than watching numbers pile up.

Gen Con offers the opportunity to meet with Indie Game Developer Network (IGDN) whose function is to help indie developers bring their games to fruition. They function as a community that shares cooperative ventures and general support.

I also spoke with Indie Game Alliance (IGA) who consult and advise publishers with a variety of resources. My days were spent looking at and collecting samples of materials. Learning the difference between eastern and western printing. The advantages and disadvantages of Kickstarter. Their were dozens of smaller lessons for what you need to know about making a game yourself.

Their is only 1 lesson if you plan on selling.

Sell it.

Make the Game. Pitch the Game. Sell the Game. Hope for the Best.

Expect maybe 5% royalties (which was quoted as an average). But games are business. And business is cold. Most companies generally agreed that if you tried to profit from your game before selling, most if not all would not even look at you.

Don’t get me wrong making games isn’t the only way to be in this crazy business. I saw a lot of podcasts at Gen Con. Some like Tabletop GameTalk mentioned how they were doing this for about a year before coming to Gen Con, there was a sense of success when they mentioned getting a press pass and the access that came with it. I thought they were very successful to have a (what I thought was a ) long running podcast. Also saw people trying to drum up interests in their games like door to door salesmen.

The cruelest teacher at Gen Con was Us, the people who went to Gen Con the consumers, fans, etc. It became easy as the days went on to know who was successful and who wasn’t. Mainly by how the crowd moved.

On the first day every vendor was a new opportunity to experience something. But by the second and third day their were less consumers attending various vendors. People who had spent hundreds or thousands for a space on the exhibition floor and while there was many walkers no one stopped. By day four a few of them had already packed up and weren’t open. It was very easy to see what at least this market had decided about certain games and products. It was sobering…a good idea isn’t enough. You need a little luck too.

Gen Con will be a fixture in my life going forward. If I’m lucky I might get to see Gen Con 100.
 Next Year I will be either a Vendor or a Seller. Right now I don’t know which. Gen Con showed me the seriousness of my decision. And I will make it with care.

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