FLOPS (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

In the days before Hollandspiele, I pitched a lot of publishers on a lot of games, and got a lot of rejections. I didn't really take any single one of them personally, though cumulatively, taken together, it did start to grind me down a little. The rejections that irked me the most were the ones that took the form of, "This is great, I had a lot of fun, but there's no way I could ever sell enough of these to justify printing it. If you ever get it published, I'll buy a copy, but if I publish it I'm just going to be flushing money down the toilet." It didn't happen often, but it happened more than once, and even once was enough to induce panic: what if all my games are like that, too esoteric to be published, all of them destined to be flops that only appealed to a very small subset of the public? And even then, Mary and I were talking about eventually  getting into publishing. What if we published a game that fit that description, a game that put us tens of thousands of dollars in debt? A publisher that can't stay in business can't publish games.

One of the things that attracted us to the print-on-demand method that we eventually settled on is that it largely mitigated that sort of risk, because there's hardly any up-front costs involved. We don't need to pay for two thousand, three thousand, four thousand copies and we don't need to store them. You order a copy, you pay us, our printer produces it and ships it to you, we pay the printer. The trade-off of course is that in diminishing the risk, it also diminishes the reward: the profit margin is ridiculously small, and as I like to say, printing games one at a time as they're ordered is the most expensive and least efficient way to make board games.

But it is the way that allows us to make board games, and it is the way that allows us to make the sorts of games we want to make. If we fall in love with a game, head-over-heels-over-head again, we can publish it, even if we're convinced that there isn't really a huge market for it. Our overhead costs are so low that we're reasonably certain that we'll break even shortly after we start taking orders for a game. Sometimes it takes a week or more to do it, sometimes it takes an hour or less. Even our slowest sellers turn some small profit eventually, and our big hits are big enough to keep us above water.

Our creative and publishing decisions are almost entirely divorced from our bottom line - I'll dig into that qualifier "almost" in a hop and a skip - and that's an incredible and unique freedom, one that, at least theoretically, we share with other print-on-demand wargames companies. Despite that, I don't often see them taking the same kind of chances, or taking them as often. Partially this is a matter of personal taste; Mary and I publish the kinds of games we like, and those publishers publish the kinds of games they like, and not everyone likes aggressively unusual games.

It's also a question of what people want out of their company. Some folks want to make a lot of money, and for them, a game that only breaks even or that turns a very modest profit wasn't worth publishing. But us? We don't need a lot of money, we just need enough: enough to pay our bills, to build up a safety net, and to get out of the house once in a while. We spent long enough without money to appreciate its presence in our lives now, but the money is not a goal in and of itself: it's what the money allows us to do, the kind of lives it permits us to live, that we're pursuing. And so if this or that weird game doesn't quite resonate with the public, well, we're still going to hit our break-even point relatively quickly, and are still likely to turn a profit.

A game that flops doesn't prevent us from getting what we want out of the enterprise. It carries none of the negative consequences that usually surround failure. In essence, we risk nothing by taking risks. More often than not, those risks pay off for us, resulting in our bestsellers, our flagship titles. The reputation we have as a publisher, the success we've built, and the long-term financial health of our company, that's all on the foundation of those risks. So, looking at it that way, we would risk all of that by not taking risks.

That, taken together with a general streak of stubbornness and independence, means that we can pretty much do whatever we want, conventional wisdom be darned. Well, almost whatever we want (told you I'd get back to it eventually). Because something we're very cognizant of are our price-points and production costs. The more stuff goes into the box, the more the game costs us to produce. In turn, the game is going to cost the consumer more if we want to keep to the low break-even point which allows us to mitigate the risks of publishing a game that might not sell in great volume. The lower we can keep the MSRP, the more copies we can sell of the game. If the production cost is too high, then the MSRP will be too high, the minimum sales we would normally be counting on might not materialize, and at that point we run the risk of the game not breaking even at all. The pricing just won't make sense for what we need the company to be. Coincidentally, this dovetails rather nicely with our preference for game boxes that have less "stuff" and more ideas, and so we've generally shied away from components-heavy games.

And, of course, we want all our games, even our weird ones - especially our weird ones - to succeed, and that means being able to market them to our audience. Or, rather, audiences: we've been very fortunate in that we have different games that appeal to different groups that sometimes, but don't always, overlap. Identifying which of these audiences we should be aiming the game at, and packaging it appropriately, is an important part of the process. We want to make it palatable without hiding what it is. Sometimes we get this right, and sometimes we get this wrong, but even then, we're learning from it, gathering data we can use on the next go-around.

And sometimes…

Sometimes we can't see any way to sell a particular game to our customers. If the components are reasonable, we might still be able to bring it to market, can still hit our break-even point relatively soon, and can still turn that modest profit. But that doesn't necessarily do the game's designer any good. Less sales mean less royalties, and also means less recognition for their work. And in cases like that - cases where another, larger firm might sell significantly more copies of the game, and the designer would get significantly more out of the arrangement - well, we'd rather see the game published by someone who can do right by it. Our goal, after all, isn't to publish as many games as possible, or all the games that we want to see out in the world.

Rather, we want to publish games that fit us - our aesthetic, our sensibility, our production methods, and our audience - while continuing to redefine and to test the boundaries of those parameters: expanding, evolving, and experimenting. It's those experiments that don't quite go as we expect them to, those risks that don't quite pay off, that give us the most useful data, and that are responsible for our overall success. After all, what's the point of being allowed to fail if you don't do it once in a while?

1 comment

  • It seems to me there is another angle to your business model that may be underappreciated. In this era of “too many boardgames”, simplification, downsizing and many folks just not having the time and/or money to buy every game they might think they like, games with a different point of view can stand out in a crowded field. This can get people interested in them, then buying them, then telling their gaming friends about them, and then keeping the game too.

    There are exactly 378, no 379, no forgot about that other new one – 380+ games on subjects like Gettysburg. All of these games have hexes or point to point movement. But there is only one Table Battles: Gettysburg that looks at various parts of the battle from a convincingly different viewpoint. It has no hexes and no counters, and yet the ebb and flow of the battle is captured by scenarios in 20 minutes. Of course, the basic system can model battles between the War of the Roses and Gettysburg – a 500 year span so far – what other system does that?

    At my favorite diner, weird food is just weird food. On my favorite gaming table, weird games are good.


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