In with the old: Is it time for traditional board game publishers to step up to the plate?

out of touchI decided a year ago to largely avoid games on Kickstarter. I had three terrible Kickstarter experiences in a row (read about those here) and, with a 0% strike rate on Kickstarter versus a 100% hit rate in terms of games from shops, I went with the sensible odds.

Now I’m not here to rain on Kickstarter (again); I’m sure at least one in 10 Kickstarter games is pretty good and if you fancy a gamble, knock yourself out. And if my best avenue to get a game of mine published was through a Kickstarter company, I wouldn’t hesitate.

What I want to talk about is the fact traditional board game publishers seem woefully off the pace in terms of getting their message out and if they don’t get with the program, they could be a few years away from trouble.

Living in a board game boom time

While non-high street board and card games are still a drop in the ocean compared to most corners of popular culture in terms of sales, this is as good as it has ever been for the hobby in many countries. The US in particular has seen a strong rise in interest, while countries such as the UK and other parts of Europe are also experiencing a growing acceptance of games.

This is most obvious in high street stores, with the likes of Target and Walmart in the US and Waterstones and WHSmiths in the UK deigning to stock the occasional game that doesn’t suck. This means everyone publishing games should be seeing some sort of rise in sales and it’s easy to see that as a sign to ‘keep on keeping on’. But when this growth curve flatlines, which it probably will, traditional board game publishers may get a shock.

Because while many traditional publishers keep doing what they’ve always done in terms of marketing, a new generation of start-ups is Kickstarting its way into the industry. And these people are tech savvy, learning as they go, and recovering from their mistakes as they move forward. So where are the new consumer battle lines being drawn?

It’s all gone quiet over there

Every time I listen to a podcast, I am bombarded with Kickstarter adverts. And, once the ads finish, I’m oft bombarded with a Kickstarter ‘preview’ or five telling me how I can go and back these games RIGHT NOW! Yup, free ads following the paid ads.

And then they bring out this episode’s ‘special’ guest – who could it be?! Reiner Knizia? Stefan Feld? Mac Gerdts? Zev from Z-Man? Eric Hautemont from Days of Wonder?! No? Oh. It’s Billy Nochops  from Our First Games speaking reverently about how he used to play D&D and how he made up a game and now he wants me to back it because, you know, what else am I going to spend my money on?

When I go to BoardGameGeek, the spiritual home of most hobby gamers, the majority of the banner ads and competitions are for Kickstarter games – and the videos section is going that way too. Twitter is awash with them, while ‘going viral’ is pretty much the Holy Grail of any Kickstarter board game project. And so it should it be – we live in the age of social networking, where one free Tweet could end up doing you more good than a $2,000 convention stand.

Kickstarter project leaders also realise their games need to be played and their voices need to be heard – especially with so many Kickstarter disasters having muddied the waters for some buyers. So again, they’re innovating – getting paid previews done, sending free games to the top video reviewers, and now increasingly putting out free print and play versions of some (or all) of their new game for anyone who wants to give it a go.

And they’re also using the spaces between the traditional June/October release windows to snap up that gamer dollar in the 10 months a year we’re largely left pining for new games to spend our hard earned cash on. And then there’s apps…

Board game publishers: bring your reputation to the party

Traditional publishers, and by association designers, seem to think it’s OK to largely ignore the new media. They tend to have a website (although good luck finding one that’s well maintained), a Facebook page (some even post on them!) and maybe a Twitter account. I can only presume they think that Spielbox, Essen, GenCon and a press release will do them just fine, thank you very much. And for now, in the boom, it probably will.

You only need to look at, say, ANY INDUSTRY to see that ignoring the internet is going to bite you in the ass long-term. Publishing was a classic, and music too, then retail – while I’m sure there are examples across the board of companies being last online and the first onto the scrap heap.

Of course some publishers are getting it right. Once the traditional release windows start coming around you won’t be able to get Stronghold Games’ Stephen Buonocore out of your headphones (and very entertaining he is too), Plaid Hat has its own podcast, while Queen Games has taken to Kickstarter like a duck to water. But they tend to be the exceptions, rather than the rule – and few get it right in all avenues.

So this is a plea to traditional publishers – start taking the internet seriously before you fall so far behind the young Kickstarter companies that you risk becoming irrelevant. Most of the best people in the industry work and design for the big publishers but you need to wake up and see that the world is moving on around you.

Get on with it already!

You are in a great position. Board game consumers, unlike many traditional retail areas, LOVE most designers and publishers. People and firms in the industry tend to have good reputations, again knocking the general retail/business trend, so there is not a popularity hump to get over – just a technological/forward thinking one.

And more importantly, board gamers want well tested, well designed, well laid out and graphically outstanding games. They want solid release schedules, games that don’t need an expansion to make them work, and that they can pop online and buy today rather than hoping to get it in 2015 in the two-day window it’s in stock. We want arbiters of quality, taking the best games they find and producing them, sending others back to the drawing board where they can be improved upon BEFORE they come out.

So what do you say, traditional publishers and designers? Is it too much to ask to bring your website up to date and get one of your employees to regularly tweet and run Facebook competitions? To get your designers on the phone with The Dice Tower, On Board Games and the rest for interviews? To get your games to the video reviewers to coincide with pre-order campaigns as Plaid Hat does? I don’t think so.

9 thoughts on “In with the old: Is it time for traditional board game publishers to step up to the plate?

  1. Good article.

    With regard to European publishers some of this is down to geography. Geography in terms of the geography of digital adoption and the geography of language. Whilst social media is used by nearly two-thirds of the UK population, the figure for Germany is only just over one-third. In fact a rule of thumb we use in the music industry with regard to digital adoption and digital marketing is that the UK is one to two years behind the US and the rest of Europe is one to two years behind the UK. The exception is Scandinavia which lives in a parallel universe of digital space!
    European publishers should be preparing for the future and should be adopting digital marketing strategies, but I suspect that their reasons are that social media has not YET achieved a threshold that can’t be ignored.
    Language is another important factor. European publishers will generally only market products in their own respective language and will not have the resources to work across languages. Social Media promotion depends on local language skills more than any other form of consumer marketing. Maybe they should be more international with their language of communication, but often they don’t even have distribution throughout other European markets.

    Of course there is no excuse for US publishers, but on the whole they are better. On the good side TMG and DoW work the digital space well (though DoW are French, they have a large US office), but Mayfair, Rio Grande and Z-man on the other hand could do much better as you quite rightly say.

    • Interesting stuff. However, I don’t see why most of Europe being three to four years behind the US is any reason for them not to catch up right now; if anything, it is every excuse. They need to see that they are competing with the US and the rest head on; it’s a global industry. The blurring of the lines between tradition European and American mechanisms is further proof of that, if it was even in doubt.

      • Yes, there is no doubt that European and most US games publishers require digital marketing expertise in their staff. But perhaps the problem goes deeper. I would argue that traditional games publishers have NEVER prioritised marketing their games effectively. The current situation is merely a continuation of the years past. They tend to operate like an old style music Indie where it is principally about A&R and that Marketing is a luxury for the likes of the big corporations (read Hasbro). Leave it to Word of Mouth they would argue. The problem is, as you have identified, that that is largely an old model which is less relevant in today’s digital world. And the beauty of today, which so many ‘traditional’ companies have failed to realise, is that digital marketing and communications is so much cheaper than old-style marketing. And if they employed staff to address this they would as you rightly say, reap benefits far greater than the costs employed.

        It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the likes of Kosmos or Ravensburger are not indulging (for the reasons I originally put forward), but what does amaze me is that the US publishers like Mayfair and Z-Man and Rio Grande are so behind the curve.

    • I have to disagree about z-man here. I follow them on Facebook and Twitter and as far as board game companies go they’re pretty good. They could all do better, but I don’t think they are doing bad by any means, and certainly not as bad as the others you mention.

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  3. I think it’s the consumers that are the problem here. It seems that, for the people that form the biggest spending group, 90% of the fun of acquiring new board games is in the anticipation of how great it will be. Kickstarter delivers that (by making you wait for months, or years,) in a way that a game that you can just buy off the shelf and play right away doesn’t. As we know, so many games are disappointments, albeit fewer through traditional channels, but by being forced to wait to play you prolong the happy phase of “it’ll be such a great game!” and postpone the moment when the bubble bursts.

    The amount of money that goes through Kickstarter demonstrates to me that “…board gamers want well tested, well designed, well laid out and graphically outstanding games…” is almost completely false. It’s a difficult time to be a traditional publisher, despite the (relative) boom in boardgaming, because it’s much easier to sell dreams than it is to sell reality.

    • I do see what you mean, but I don’t think my statement is false: that is what people want, they’re just letting ‘eyes bigger than belly’ syndrome rule over common sense.

      for me, traditional publishers should be doing way more to show their games going on a journey, rather than simply using traditional release methods. You’re right – people do want that build up of excitement – and Kickstarter is giving it to them. But that doesn’t stop traditional publishers playing them at their own game. I’m saying they need to wake up and see that this is the way forward; there are myriad ways they can engage gamers in a similar fashion.

      • It’s the old difference between what punters think they want and what’s really going to satisfy them. I agree that it seems like it would make sense for more traditional publishers to up their game and capture some of that audience, though, and Queen has shown that you can put up a fairly average game by a well-known designer and rake the cash in. I’d be interested to see how sales of, say, Amerigo versus Concordia compare, given that they both seem like they could be targetted at similar audiences.

  4. Another great read Chris. I agree wholeheartedly. Marketing and cultivating a loyal audience is so crucial to success of any business. For many, they rely so much on word of mouth and, to a degree, that is still the best way (including across digital platforms, it’s all about regular communication). For that reason, it’s why many distributors and marketing professionals in the industry really highlight conventions as one of the best ways if not the best way to interact with and grow your audience. That does not mean that the digital world should be ignored however. Social media platforms have opened up the opportunity to connect with your audience, individuals who share your passion, to an incredible extent. In the gaming industry, it’s such a close-knit community although keeping that regular communication takes a lot of work and dedication. Now one of my problems is that I haven’t ever really been very social media savvy, tech-savvy yes but I prefer real face-to-face interactions with people or over the phone, rather than starting at screen all the time (part of the reason which drew me to tabletop games in the first place). Now that’s just me.

    It has become quite clear that developing quality well-tested games with outstanding artwork, while having a good knowledge and understanding of the industry to bring those games to market, is simply not enough. You need funding and an audience to get behind your project. For many this has been allure of Kickstarter and why it’s garnered so much attention from first-time creators. Now, though, the site is saturated with so many projects, it’s become rare that backers will ever stumble upon your project. It’s really is so important to have that audience beforehand. This is why I’ll be taking so much of an effort this year to be active across the whole digital landscape, to create quality content and connect with as many people as possible, nurture an audience. When you’re too busy focusing on making a great game and researching the best way to bring that game to market, sometimes you forget the true importance of that. To be a real contender in this industry, there’s no shying away from it, though there’s only so much one person can do.

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