The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Living the Dream 1.0

Chad Ellis

October, 2004

The Story of Your Move Games, Inc.

At GenCon 2004, Your Move Games launched itself as a game company with two new games, Succession: Intrigue in the Royal Court and Space Station Assault. For myself and my partner, Robert Dougherty, this launch was the culmination of almost a year's work and a dream held by each of us since long before we met eight years ago. As I've spoken with gamers from all over the world, it's become clear that this dream—to make games and see them played—is even more common than I realized.

These articles tell our story, from our first decision to work together, developing and playtesting our first game, deciding where and how to launch our business, promotion, distribution, you name it. I'm not pretending that we're masters of the universe or that I'm presenting a foolproof path to success in game promotion. Far from it—you'll see some clear mistakes that we've made as well as areas where we had to learn fast as we went. If you've ever been curious about publishing your own games, hopefully you'll enjoy our story—and if you ever decide to go for it, you can steal our good ideas and improve upon our mistakes! (Even better, since we're still getting started, you can give us suggestions on things we should be doing differently!)

To some extent, I'm going to break the story down into the four P's of Marketing: Product, Promotion, Price and Place. While I often find such frameworks to be annoying, Harvard Business School recently informed me that the paperwork I signed when I enrolled requires me to use them at all times or else risk having my degree revoked, so there you are. But before I go into the normal P's I'm going to start with the most important one for anyone thinking about starting their own business:

Partnership

No matter how good you are, no matter how few other commitments you have and no matter how much you've already prepared, there is no way you can launch a game production company alone. You have to design games, organize playtest sessions, analyze the feedback from those sessions, find printers, submit component lists and receive bids from those printers, find and hire artists, contact distributors, convince distributors to bother carrying your games, create buzz with retailers and gamers, receive, store and ship your products, handle invoices, get incorporated, etc., etc.

In short, not only is the work too much for one person, the breadth of expertise is too much as well.

I've always wanted to make my own games. When I was a kid I used to sell my dad board games with such innovative mechanics as "take another turn" and "go back two spaces". As I grew older I kept playing games but design never went beyond hobby and private dream. I followed a conventional career path, complete with MBA and a few senior management positions. Most recently I ran a marketing department for a business unit of Siemens Mobile. I've hired and fired people, overseen an eight-figure budget, coordinated over a dozen promotion agencies working on a global marketing campaign, pitched to venture capitalists and done a whole bunch of business stuff. I'm pretty confident as a business person, but knew very little about the gaming business in particular and knew no one in it.

Meanwhile, Robert Dougherty was a lot closer to the dream. He got into Magic fairly early and when someone offered him half a pizza for one of his cards he realized other people might be interested in buying singles. A while later, after a big investment in Legends paid off, Robert opened the first Your Move Games store just outside Boston. Since then Robert has opened a second store in Providence, RI and became a major event organizer for Wizards and Upper Deck. Robert produced a game aid for Magic, "Double Sided Tokens" which sold well enough to make a profit and give him some credibility with distributors and retailers. He also wanted to publish his own games, but knew he lacked some important expertise, e.g. in promotion, as well as capital.

Robert and I became friends in 1996 while I was in business school. I started playing at his store and at his Pro Tour Qualifiers. We had a lot of common interests and values and enjoyed hanging out and playing various games. Basically, we're both such geeks that we each had costume weddings. His was a Star Trek wedding on the bridge of the Enterprise (at the Star Trek Experience attraction in Las Vegas). Mine was a medieval wedding, complete with period musicians and guests being put into the stocks by guards in full plate armor.

Robert Dougherty (left) and Chad Ellis

Better still, in both cases the idea for the wedding came from our respective wives! It's a great time to be a geek.

So when we chatted about game design and both realized that we were serious about wanting to do it, we knew we'd found the partner we needed. We had the three most important ingredients for success: trust, shared values/expectations and complementary experience/expertise. Complementary experience and expertise is pretty straightforward and I've already touched on it above, but the other two points deserve some attention.

Trust is essential for any partnership, and in my experience the people in most start-ups don't pay enough attention to it. Trust questions go way beyond, "Is she honest?" You also have to ask, "Is he reliable? Do I trust his judgment? Will she evaluate her own games objectively?"

Suppose you know someone who is totally honest and reliable but who gets emotionally attached to his creative work and can't be objective about it? Such a person would, in all likelihood, be a disaster as a partner in a small game publishing company.

Shared values and expectations are another aspect of partnership many people overlook. I think there are two principal reasons for this. First, values and expectations can be hard subjects to talk about. We're not used to it. But more importantly, and disastrously, people tend to assume that everyone else shares their values and expectations… until they learn otherwise.

How much time are you going to devote to your venture? How much money will you invest and who will own how much of the company (assuming you form a business entity)? Who has what responsibilities? How will you decide which games to develop and which developed games to publish? Will you spend money on advertising? What production values will you use? How will you handle disputes when they arise? (And they will arise!)

Robert and I had a lot of long conversations and email exchanges about how we saw our venture and our roles in it. We found agreement in a lot of areas, but there were also plenty of areas where our expectations differed. Because we raised those issues, we were able to reach agreement on them so that we started with a shared vision. Finally, we wrote our understandings down so that we don't find ourselves with different memories of what we've agreed on six months or a year down the road.

We're good friends with most of our expectations in common at the start, but if we hadn't done that work we'd have ended up in big trouble before we even got our first game off the ground. Instead we've been able to concentrate on achieving our goals and meeting the deadlines necessary to hit our GenCon launch target.

Next time I'll talk about promotion—probably the least-loved "P" for designers, but one of the most important for anyone trying to create a commercial success.

- Chad Ellis

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