As most folks know by now, we publish games using a print-on-demand model. This means that when you buy a game, we take the money that you gave us and from that we pay our printer and set aside money for royalties. We don't pay a cent before then, and this allows us to publish a larger number of games, and to sometimes publish games that are aggressively unusual or uncommercial.
Okay, so that isn't exactly one hundred percent true. For one thing, wood bits and cards - which are becoming increasingly prominent in our games - have to be purchased ahead of time from separate suppliers, in something that's more akin to a traditional model, and takes on some simulacrum of traditional financial risks and logistical challenges (we have a small "warehouse" for wood bits in what used to be our guest bedroom).
Generally, though, the only up-front cost we have to worry about is the game's art. Once we've sold enough games to pay for that, we've broken even - so the lower the art costs, the more quickly that a game becomes profitable. This is of course some pretty basic, common sense stuff, but it was something that was very much at the forefront of our minds when we were starting the company and putting together our business plan.
Said business plan was for Hollandspiele to be a side gig until, at some point some years down the road, it became a full-time endeavor. To work as a side gig, we figured we'd be releasing roughly a game a month. As it turned out, we went full-time about six months later, and are trying to release closer to twenty games a year. But in the beginning, we didn't know that, and were very aware that between maps, counters, and boxes, art costs for even a single game could pile up pretty rapidly. If you do that twelve times a year, and sales were slower on this game or that one, you could run into some serious cash-flow problems as you waited patiently for each game to break-even. This in turn would make more unusual games more of a risk, and being that we'd rather make money than lose it, it could result in us playing it safer creatively.
So a key component of the business model was finding a way to greatly reduce our art costs. Before Hollandspiele, I had already done some advertising layout and cover design for a couple of other companies, so it made sense for me to do that for us. According to Mary, Hollandspiele pays me for this graphic design work in foot rubs - that is, I'm paid by giving her foot rubs, and I'm still not entirely sure how that works. At any rate, it wasn't much of a leap from doing covers to also laying out the counters.
That would only leave the maps themselves, and the occasional unit illustrations for those games where NATO symbols just wouldn't do. Even then, we commissioned illustrations with an eye toward stretching out our dollars as much as possible: that's why the unit illustrations for the Shields & Swords II games are generic rather than period-specific, so that we could use the same counter art in four different games. But by me handling everything else, we could greatly reduce the art costs for each game, to the point where every game had a very manageable break-even point. Sometimes it takes a couple of weeks for a game to break even, sometimes a couple of hours, but it's quick enough to make twelve (and now, aiming for twenty) games a year possible.
For the same reason, once we started using cards in our games, I took on that as well. I can count on one hand the number of games where we had an artist lay out the counters, design the box cover, or lay out the cards. Most of the time, however, I'm the one responsible for that, or, depending on how you feel about my graphic design, I'm the one to blame.
And really, I kinda prefer it that way. When I was pursuing other creative endeavors in my teens and early twenties, I frequently had collaborators let me down or just plain flake out. And my solution was to cut out other people as much as possible, and to try to do everything myself. Not the healthiest solution, mind, especially not for someone who was working in film, which is primarily a collaborative medium. Once she came into my life, Mary and I made our films together, but there's a world of difference between our most recent film - where we contributed equally to the script, direction, and editing - and the first one, where she often felt like I wouldn't let her do anything. I had to learn how to give up control, how to trust, and how to depend on someone else - specifically, I learned that I could depend on Mary.
And in a way, on an essential level, she's the only one I depend on. That's not to say that the artists, designers, printers, and suppliers that we work with aren't dependable - they absolutely are, and they do exemplary work! - but rather that I trust Mary's judgment implicitly, and that I know she'll never let me down. We trust each other, depend on each other, and we prefer to have as much control over the process as possible. Between the two of us, that gives us ownership of our successes, and when we drop the ball, then we're the ones that dropped that ball, and can own that too, rather than being put in the awkward position of being on the hook for something someone else did.
If there's a mistake on a counter, it's my mistake. And, hey, since we're a print-on-demand company, I can fix that mistake relatively quickly, and I don't have to wait a month or six weeks for the counter artist to get to it. If my card layout is ugly, I'm the one that dropped the ball. And if a game comes out two months later than expected because we're still waiting on counters, well, that's on me, too.I had a guy reach out to me recently to let me know that they really wished we would step up our counter game, to move away from NATO symbols and flat colors, and of course I've had more than one person wish that the cards for Table Battles had more razzmatazz. And I will admit, I am not the world's greatest graphic designer. If we doubled or tripled our art budget for each game, someone else who has more experience and a better eye for this sort of thing would absolutely get better-looking results. Heck, if we throw even more money at it, we'll probably have more sophisticated covers to boot. But the flip-side to that is longer turnaround times on each project, a larger number of sales required to make a game profitable, and less personal control over the process - none of which makes a whole lot of sense for us.
Hi Simon – thanks for the feedback. regarding WOMA, it’s not really a lack of coordination – I did the counters and the cards, and I made those color choices. I used both purple and red for the Roman counters (the forts and auxilia are red, for example) and went with red for the Roman cards because it’s a color that’s associated with action and energy (whereas purple always feels quite standoffish, regal). The map was designed by the artist to our specifications and with that counter size in mind – I get it if you don’t dig the way it fits together, but that was very much our choice and not a case of us not coordinating it. It is entirely possible that that’s me dropping that particular ball though, and that our decision was not the wisest or best.
I know for example that there are several folks who really don’t dig the art direction on “Optimates et Populares”, and that’s very much on us – we asked the artist to do it that way, and it could be that that was a case where our instincts failed us.
I really appreciate you taking the time to comment, and really appreciate where you’re coming from – I just wanted to give you some context for those decisions, which again may have totally been the wrong ones. :-)
Well, Traffic’s one I can’t take credit for, but thanks – I appreciate it.
I love the art and graphic design of your games. The covers are always striking, the maps are always gorgeous, and the cards and counters are always both elegant and clear. All in all, you’ve produced a body of games that are consistently fun to play and great looking. That’s no mean feat! One thing I would change, however, and this is just a minor thing, is that I sometimes feel there could be more coordination between the different elements in a given game. For example, in The Wars of Marcus Aurelius, some of the the holding boxes on the map (time track, IP track) are slightly too small for their respective counters. Another example from the same game is that the Roman counters are purple, but the Roman cards are red. I know I’m being pedantic and, given what you’ve written in this post, it seems necessary to have the different elements designed and produced by different people, but for some reason these slight inconsistencies just kinda bother me. Like, if the boxes on the Marcus Aurelius map had been drawn with the dimension of the counters in mind, or if all the Roman elements had been the same shade of purple, to me that would have been perfect. Anyway, I’m sure that’s just me, so don’t change a thing! :)
Better cover art?
The box covers to An Infamous Traffic and The Wars of Marcus Aurelius are two of the best out there.