To Launch a Game: An Interview with Breaking Games
So, once again it is the holiday season. The post-Essen rush has begun and the endless hordes of games have started to hit the shelves like spaghetti against the kitchen wall. What will stick? Nobody knows. With so many titles eagerly vying to hit your holiday table there are certain to be surprise successes and bruised egos for all those involved in this cardboard hobby we hold so dear to our hearts. This got me thinking (a rarity, so I must run with it while I can).
With so many to choose from, how do these games differentiate themselves? How do they stand out? And stand out not only to the consumer but to the merchant as well. How do you get people to pay attention to your product and how do you make your game launch successful?
Luckily for us, Breaking Games stepped up to provide insight on what it takes. They are the home of the highly lauded Letter Tycoon (as a local scrabble champ I gotta get that on my table soon), the Target smash Game of 49, and sure to be their next family hit, MoonQuake Escape.
Its creator is Jeff Johnston; the same man who gave us Flashlights & Fireflies by Gamewright games. He’s a spirited fellow whose vision is effervescent and enthusiasm is infectious. We first met in Baltimore at Unpub in 2015. Its a convention full of up-and-coming designers playtesting prototypes and showing off finished games. Even Scythe was there. So it began. I wandered though the endless tables, past Rob Daviau and Eric Lang, and B-lined it straight to the coolest looking game at the event.
In short, MoonQuake Escape involves players assuming the role of prisoners who try their best to reach a sole escape ship first. Along the way, you will be attacked by both prison guards and foes while the terrain around you pivots and rotates, throwing off your best laid plans. Its a cute game in the spirit of King of Tokyo, Lift Off!, and Munchkin.
I reached out to Jeff for an interview and he was more than happy to provide insight. Even better, the CEO of Breaking Games, Shari Spiro, graciously gave her view as well. Double Rainbow! Here are their thoughts about picking a game, developing it, and making it attractive to all involved.
1. Shari, what attracted you to MoonQuake Escape? How did it come to your attention?
[Shari] JEFF — a man who I had never met before — came up to me in a real hurry at PAX East a couple of years ago, and took my arm and said, "I urgently have to show you something." He took me by the elbow and went sprinting across the demo area at PAX East pulling me along with him, until we got to a table which had MoonQuake — a grey, ugly version of it — setup on it.
What initially got my attention, besides the crazy nature of the man who ran me to that table, was the three tiers of the game and the ping pong ball he had for the spinner. I thought to myself, "how the hell am I going to make this?" (because I KNEW right away no one else had said yes to him because of the level of difficulty I could already see would be involved in the manufacture of this game). And man, he has to change the colors of this thing.
2. Jeff, how did you trick Shari into liking MQE? What was your reaction when she agreed to publish the game?
[Shari] He never tricked me — he only pulled me across the entire convention center.
[Jeff] OK, I remember the event slightly differently, but it speaks highly of Shari that she came along with me! I realized early on that only someone crazy would agree to make this unique board, and with all due respect, Shari does fit that bill!
Also, I had a chance to play the game with her daughter at a festival and her endorsement went a long way. Finally, adding Michael Parla to the project as art director, who rendered a beautiful, fantastic world for MoonQuake Escape, showed how stunning it could be. On a designer finding a publisher — having someone believe in your project as much as you do is a really fun moment for any creator.
[Jeff] BTW, I’ll pop into the interview every now and again when I have something to add!
3. How do you know when the right time is to release a game?
[Shari] Generally, there is a plan to game releases based on budget and readiness of the game — but at the time, I just wanted to release the game when it was delivered. It took a LONG TIME to manufacture properly.
Now we make schedules and plan releases based on a number of things — what game is fully tested and ready to go? Can we couple its release with a corresponding holiday? — but the main truth is that any game has to be completely done before it can be released. That much is obvious. The rest is theory and marketing.
4. How important is the relationship between creator and publisher in regards to helping a game succeed?
[Shari] For Breaking Games the relationship is almost as important as the game itself. We are a designer-centric company — I don’t get as excited about a game if the designer does not want to be involved. It's like canned music versus a live performance — I would love to see the real artist perform rather than just listen to elevator versions of their music. It's like that with games. The designers are like the song writers — their games are their hits. We love it when they can come and perform their hits with us and help us PRODUCE their hits to match the way they dreamed they should be.
[Jeff] It’s really great being part of the Breaking Games team, especially since they let me do only fun jobs while they’re doing all the really hard work of making the game real! Many publishers are happy to pick up the ball and run with it themselves. It has been exciting seeing both approaches.
Creator of MoonQuake Escape, Jeff Johnston
5. What are the responsibilities, both obligatory and voluntary, that a publisher and creator must fulfill to make this critical time as robust as possible?
[Shari] Every case is different — because all of our designers are unique and have both unique needs and gifts. In Jeff’s case, I said "make it prettier" and he got the art done and was meticulous with every detail. We followed his blueprint on manufacturing the game. Now — with teaching the game — Jeff and I are starting to work together on a really great way for people to learn the game: though videos, the rule book, and from live demos. We will work together at shows and work to make cool new promotional materials to promote the game. We work to get Moonquake Escape into retail stores and distribution worldwide, and he continues to be the star power behind the game. We carry the game around the world with us to trade shows and create how-to-play videos — and work with him on social media to continue to bring MoonQuake to the attention of gamers everywhere.
[Jeff] For this project, Michael and I (and many, many other great contributors) worked hard to provide the best starting point we could for Breaking Games. While Breaking Games has taken the reins, we’ve focused on making as many new fans as we can in anticipation of the release.
6. What are the main elements of a successful launch?
[Shari] A completed and well made game is the main element for me as a manufacturer, but we have been involved for over a year and a half with many other efforts leading up to the actual release of the game — like getting distribution prior to the launch, promoting the game at trade shows and on social media, creating how to play videos, creating promotional materials, and constant communication between the designer team and the publishing team. I would say that great game play, team cooperation, and enthusiasm are the three biggest elements for success of any game.
7. Do you find that a successful launch effects later sales?
[Shari] Not necessarily. We find that a game destined to be an evergreen will naturally find its way to rise to the top. This game is a classic game and I believe it is destined to be an evergreen. It has JUST the right mix of fun and strategy — and unlike other games it ALSO has a unique visual and tactile appeal to it because of its construction and the nature of spinning the moon in game play. I think that this game will grow in success and sales as more people play it and recommend it to others. Hype only carries a game so far these days — replayability is paramount to achieving long term success in today’s game marketplace.
8. I know price point is always a concern. Do you base price point on investment cost? On what the market will bear? Do you try to have special pricing to attract new eyes? To attract merchants?
[Shari] Both — we initially try to base it on investment cost but sometimes we have to take a hit based on what the market will bear.
9. What are your top two strategies for getting retailers to want your game?
[Shari] Send them the games — play the games with them when possible ad then follow up. These are simple strategies that seem to actually work in all kinds of sales. We also solicit their input at different times in the process of game development.
10. I see Jeff traveling a lot to expose gamers to MQE. In fact, we were just talking while he was at BGG Con. Do you find that conventions and in-store demos are vital? Do you see conventions as advertising cost or is the intent to make a profit?
[Shari ] Conventions are meant to build brands. They are not a profit center. This is my opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of other publishers.
11. Sometimes with pre-release hype, a game can seem like old news before it's even come out. Heck, sometimes I've seen so many videos I feel like I've already played it 100 times. How do you pace exposure?
[Shari] I think the exposure for this game has been perfect — I agree with you, and this is why we have not over-hyped MoonQuake Escape in my opinion. We try to pace our releases so that people are not sick of something before they get their hands on it — rather, we try to keep them excited about getting their hands on the game.
12. How do you approach art? Do you craft it to benefit the game or design it to appeal most strongly to a certain market? Do you let the creator have full reign or is a group effort?
[Shari] We craft the art to benefit all three — the vision of the designer, the support and benefit of the game play, and the marketplace. Art has to be GREAT — and it also has to work for the game and the designer. Also, it has to be great because there are SO MANY games on the shelves that it has to really pop. By the same token, we try to remain true to the designer’s vision. If they don’t have a vision, we present visions until we all agree. Generally if we all agree on something we know we have a winner. The team approach is part of every project in Breaking Games. Letter Tycoon was a resounding success and proof positive that our approach works.
[Jeff] Michael rendered a fantastic world for MoonQuake Escape. Shari’s input was “Make it pop!” and so our Wrath of Khan-inspired grey world overnight became an angry orange planet!
13. As a publisher, do you go through the game with a comb to refine it to your specifications, let it exist as-is, or some a mix of the two?
[Shari] It is usually a mix of the two. Some games come in great and need a little refinement to the art or other fixes. Some games come in needing tweaks in mechanics or a mechanic overhaul. Our Breaking Games Studio in L.A. — lead by our chief game developer Peter Vaughan — fine tunes the mechanics of each game. Rules are reviewed by many people — and in the end especially by me — because I have an awful time learning a game unless the rules are stellar. The Breaking Games Studio in L.A. has game nights where people come in and play test games so Peter can decide the next steps for them. I love the work he does, and it is a pleasure working with him.
14. Is there consternation or anxiety during a game launch, or is it all par for the course at this point?
[Shari] My anxiety is during the manufacturing stage. Once I am happy with manufacturing I enjoy the marketing part. I am proud to show the games — and it is my pleasure to demo and sell the games and launch them into retail. Target launches are more time consuming, but we have a team in place for that now — so for the most part, the launch part is the more enjoyable phase.
15. How much work goes into publishing? What is that work?
[Shari] The process starts by traveling around, meeting designers, then finding and playing their games. Then coming up with an agreement that works for everyone.
Next there is the process of game redevelopment and design, numerous rounds of mechanics review and play testing, followed by numerous rounds of artist submissions, revisions and decisions, sleepless nights, long phone calls with the dev team, putting a game you want out on hold because it suddenly breaks with 6 people playing, endless nights online with China, many back and forth proofs, and production samples, and color errors, and changes in the box at the last minute — or changes in colors because who knew that some people cannot see a certain shade of beige (me included) — then worlwide trade show traveling, interviews, and panels to help new designers learn about things they should know, planning the booth layouts, designing banners, booking hotel rooms, booking air travel, attending events, late nights at cons playing games and getting up for a 7 a.m. call with the UK and having them screw up what you talked about anyway, meetings with distributors, learning retailers' online systems to manage orders, working for two years with a programming team to handle electronic orders for large retail chains, working with Amazon, eventually buying a warehouse to have better control of the delivery of the products, new kinds of insurance you never knew existed, dealing with port delays or large shipping combines suddenly going out of business and having 7 or 8 containers in limbo on the ocean for a few weeks, learning worldwide logistics and weirdly liking it — that is a portion of the work. But honestly, I haven’t even gotten into the whole world of bar codes and carton markings yet. LOL — obviously it has layers and layers that took several years to learn, and we still learn something new every day.
16. What's your favorite story from launching this game? From any game?
[Shari] My favorite story from MoonQuake is still Jeff grabbing me and absconding with me. Of course he is married and I am engaged — so it was the best kind of absconding for making a crazy cool game.
Also, all of the rejections from every plant in China that I know until I finally bribed one into making it — by promising them a ton of work. They did it, and so far I have only great results with this game. I love the way it came out. I have plenty of crazy Cards Against Humanity launch stories of course — but that is an article for another day I think.
[Jeff] My favorite part will always be meeting new fans. My fondest was a young lady at SaltCON that used manipulating game components as part of her physical therapy. She was determined to operate every facet of the MQE board and was a real inspiration.
18. Finally, it’s a long tiring week. What drink can I make ya?
[Shari] I like a nice Stone IPA — but if I am drinking to get drunk on something harder — probably a Captain and Coke.
[Jeff] Naturally, I’ll have what she’s having!
19. Any final thoughts to add?
[Shari] MoonQuake Escape is one of the most challenging games I have ever manufactured and Jeff is one of the most colorful and exciting designers of our time (Agreed. Jeff is one of those guys who you want to succeed at every turn. —Glenn). It is an honor to work with him — and I love the way the game has come out. It has been one of the most complicated of all projects and I have so much pride in how it looks, plays, and the response we are getting from gamers everywhere. I am excited for the future of MoonQuake and enjoying the present.
[Jeff] Shari’s a unique contributor to today’s board game industry and it's a pleasure to have met her. It’s been so fun watching her in action and can’t wait to see what she has up her sleeve next!
20. Thank you both, so much for your time and thoughtful answers. It's really neat hearing your perspectives. I hope we have a chance to chat and, until then, I wish you the best of success!
MY PLEASURE! I HAVE LOTS AND LOTS OF STORIES
Well there you have it, folks. It ain't easy but, at the end of the day, it sure does seem worth it. Hopefully you can get a better idea about what it takes and what to expect along your own game-making journeys. Until next time, have fun and take care!