The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Living the Dream 2.0: Promotion

Chad Ellis

November, 2004

The Story of Your Move Games, Inc.

If you're like me, you're suspicious of the whole idea of promotion. Most gamers are purists at heart and think that the best game should be a success because it's the best game, not because of some slick advertising campaign. Games aren't sneakers or deodorants!

At GenCon, I read an article about how Apples to Apples had reached the one million unit sales mark—an incredible home run in gaming—while seemingly buying into this idea that promotion isn't necessary. Out of the Box even said they only cared about three Ps: price, product and place and that promotion isn't really necessary. Make a great product at an attractive price and work with retailers and word of mouth will take care of the promotion. Sign me up!

Now let's look at the bad news. The overall market for board games is relatively small. To give you a rough idea, the US government estimates that there are roughly 10,000 hobby game stores in America—and not all of them sell board games at all. Every year thirteen and a half billion new game titles are published, meaning that each hobby store is offered 1,350,000 new games to look at each year—over three thousand per day. Don't quote me on the "new games" figure exactly, but it's close—at least eleven billion new games titles per year. OK, it's an outright lie, but it's a really big number—and any individual game stands a big risk of being ignored when it launches.

Getting ignored at launch time is a lot more dangerous than it sounds. Most new games sell, if they sell at all, around half of their total volume in the first month and then dwindle and die. Worse, that total volume number doesn't average a million units like Apples to Apples, or a hundred thousand units, or ten thousand units. For new games from anyone other than the most established companies, it averages somewhere in the hundreds.

This is the unpleasant reality facing anyone who wants to launch a new game, let alone a new game company. The typical launch faces massive competition for limited shelf space and audience attention, sells too few copies, and then dies out rather than gradually building via word of mouth. Sign me up? Maybe I should have kept my day job.

When Robert and I started planning our launch, the first step was to understand the problem and then to see if we could solve it. The first thing to understand is that, contrary to what every distributor will tell you, your game does not actually achieve half of its sales in the first month. Not even close. What they really mean is they achieve half of their sales in the first month.

When a distributor sells your game—or when you sell it directly to a retailer—all you've done is put the game onto a channel shelf. You should think of that space as something you have based on a number of factors—promotion efforts, your reputation (if any), a unique element to your game, anything that might cause a retailer to say, "This is one of the thirteen and a half thousand new games that I'll put on my shelf." In other words, whether you earned that spot or just got lucky to get it, your game itself probably didn't earn it… your game hasn't yet made a sale.

You haven't sold your game until a gamer—not a distributor, not a retailer—buys it. Yes, you'll get your check from the channels and it sure looks like a sale, but it's just in the channel. If it sits there, that channel is dead to you.

Now let's continue on the path of your game. A store has given it some shelf-space but almost certainly not a lot. More likely it's stacked bookcase-style with a large number of other games, all with pretty boxes and art and all advertising some fun game theme. Now all it's waiting for is a gamer to buy it.

Unfortunately, gamers are a lot like game retailers. There are far more games out there than they have time to play or money to buy. Worse (from the point of view of a new company), a lot of new games are mediocre and the best ones tend to come from companies with track records. Unless you're a fan of Your Move Games or I give you some compelling reason, which are you going to spend $40 on, Succession or the newest offering from Rio Grande?

It's not at all unlikely that your game will sit on the retailer's shelf for six months or longer. Only then (if then!) has your game sold. And the retailer hasn't made any money on it. If the retail price was $40 then she only paid the distributor $20 for it but the cost of running a store won't be covered by products that "turn" only once in six months. Additionally, when your game finally does sell, it's at least six months old and the distributor has long stopped pushing it—he's got lots of new games to sell.

Once you think about the lifecycle of a copy of your game—including six months of doing nothing but taking up shelf space—it's easy to see why game sales quickly shrink to zero. The launch volumes are just filling the channel, and most games perform poorly enough in the channel that they won't be repurchased. Nor are you likely to get into new stores because the distributors have new toys to push and "know" that an old game doesn't sell.

What about that word of mouth? We all remember the shampoo commercial where you tell two friends and they tell two friends and soon enough the screen is full of 128 blondes smiling about how well their product is doing. Gamers love to talk almost as much as people on TV commercials, so surely if your game is great that will keep demand growing?

It almost goes without saying that you think your game is great. (If you don't think it's great, please don't publish it—you're just asking for trouble. Do more playtesting or go on to your next game.) We certainly think ours are great and so did our various playtest groups, but is that enough? Not necessarily, because board games suffer a tremendous handicap when it comes to word of mouth.

If one of your close friends tries out a new restaurant, loves it, and tells you about it (or has you eat there with him), you're more likely to eat at that restaurant in the future. If he tells you about a great movie he saw, you're more likely to see the movie. If he buys a particular car and raves about it, you're more likely to buy that car (assuming you're in the market). But if someone from your gaming group buys a board game, raves about it and gets you to try it, you may be less likely to buy a copy of your own than if he'd never heard of it.

The problem is simple—with all those millions of games out there competing for gamer money, a lot of us would rather buy our group's first copy of Ticket to Ride than the second copy of Settlers of Catan. If we rate a game nine or ten out of ten, we'll probably buy our own copy no matter what—but if it's a seven or eight we're probably satisfied knowing that the group has a copy so we can play it when we're in the mood. My most recent experience along these lines was Evo. I played it at a local board game group, enjoyed both the concept and the play and would be happy to recommend it—as about an eight out of ten. But I'm unlikely to buy my own copy because I thought it was good, not amazing. For me it's enough that a local group has it.

So let's assume you're right about your game—it's really good. "Really good" will translate to maybe 30 percent of people rating it a nine or higher on a ten point scale, and at least one person in ten won't like it no matter how good it is—different people like different things.

Now we go back to the lifecycle of your game. Over the first six months you sold, say, two hundred copies to end consumers. If each purchased copy is played by three people (plus the buyer), that's 600 additional players exposed who might buy a copy. If all of those rating it a nine or ten buy their own copy (unlikely), you've just sold another 180 copies, and there are between 200 and 250 people who have played your game and rate it highly.

Now how many of those are going to be effective advocates for your game? Remember, most of them have already shared the game with their main group so you can't count on word of mouth spreading too fast that way. The next hope is that they'll spread the word by reviewing it online. Let's say one out of fifty goes online and writes a favorable review. That would give you four or five rave reviews along with a few negative ones—don't think that only the happy people will write about your game! Is that enough to get the readers of those sites excited enough to buy?

Well, taking a quick look at BoardGameGeek, Ticket to Ride has just over 1100 ratings and an average of about eight out of ten. Settlers of Catan has over 3000 ratings and also has an average rating of about eight. Puerto Rico, the site's highest-ranked game, has over 2500 ratings and an average score of 8.77.

So the word-of-mouth competition is pretty tough.

That's the problem—the next step is solving it. Your Move Games needed a strategy that would give retailers a reason to buy our products (and to keep buying them after they sold, rather than just picking up the next new game) as well as giving gamers a reason to buy it from the retailers.

[sarcasm] Fortunately, the advertising industry had already figured out the solution for us. By placing ads in major gaming magazines we can tell gamers everywhere that we think our game is worth their money… a newsflash that will be sure to convince them. And we can do this for mere thousands or tens of thousands of dollars! [/sarcasm]

I recently ran a marketing department for a large company and I have a pretty strong view on advertising in general—it doesn't work, especially for launching new products. Not only is most advertising expensive, it isn't very effective unless you have something compelling to say. "This new game is great," isn't compelling unless someone else is saying it on your behalf, i.e. you've won a major award or garnered positive reviews from "name" reviewers.

That's not to say we won't do any advertising. I'm considering some online ads to let people know we're repeating our dice giveaway at GenCon SoCal (discussed next month), and if and when we've got enough external accolades to justify a print ad, we'll consider it. However, advertising isn't going to be a core activity for us. Instead, we are focusing on word of mouth.

Yes, I did just finish explaining that word of mouth is hard to generate and won't simply do your promotion work for you, but word of mouth can be kick-started. You can have a promotion strategy for word of mouth and that's what we're trying to do.

The first thing is to recognize that most consumer groups can be described in terms of a pyramid. At the top are the opinion leaders—again, forgive me if I start talking like an MBA. These are the people who write about games, who would rather go to Essen than the Bahamas. John McCallion, Tom Vasel, Greg Schloesser, Stuart Dagger, Rick Thornquist and others like them form the "top" of the gamer-geek pyramid.

The next layer of the pyramid contains the hard-core gamers. These guys and gals may not have regular columns in magazines but they are passionate gamers who tell each other about their experiences. They read what the guys above have to say and they talk to each other. They've rated over a hundred games on their website(s) of choice and written a dozen or more thorough reviews. They go to Origins and GenCon (or want to) and pride themselves on knowing which new games are good and which ones should be avoided.

Card back from SuccessionIf you're reading The Games Journal (and you are, if you're reading this), the chances are good that you're in one of these two layers. The third layer contains the rest of us. We're happy to call ourselves gamers but don't have as much time for gaming as we'd like because we make too many other things priorities. We may focus on one game or genre of games (for me it was Magic for the past several years), or we may simply be the guy who shows up to play the new game but is less likely to have discovered it.

The third layer of the pyramid is much larger than the first two and will account for the vast majority of sales. But the first two layers are where you want your word of mouth to take hold because their opinions will strongly affect the purchase decisions of those in the third group.

A nice anecdote illustrates how this works. I recently asked a store manager how he knows which new board games to buy and which to recommend, especially since he himself is a Magic player rather than a board gamer. He says that the store has a handful of board game fanatics who find out about the best games before they are even available and tell him what they want the store to carry. Later they will reaffirm which games are the best ones. Not only do these gamers directly influence the purchases of other people in the store, the manager often replies to customer inquiries with, "Well, I'm not an expert but the people here who really know board games say…"

Fortunately, there's a fairly effective way to get these people to try your games and talk about them, and it costs less than you might think. You give them copies and ask them to write reviews.

We began with a very small number of copies of Succession that were air-shipped over to us for GenCon, so I began by contacting the people named above and others in the "top" layer. While many were careful to tell me they couldn't promise a review, all of them were ready to give the games a try. (The one partial exception was Stuart Dagger who said that from the description he was only interested in Succession, not a "space opera shoot-up" like Space Station Assault.)

Magic: The Gathering cardsWe also took advantage of the gaming world in which Robert and I are arguably at the top of the pyramid: Magic: the Gathering. Your Move Games is famous within the Magic world, with many of the game's top players. I'm not quite as good as Robert (or Darwin Kastle, who designed one of our launch games) but do have one Pro Tour top 8 to my name—and more importantly, I'm one of the game's top strategy authors.

One of the things this let us do is approach magazines that specialize in CCGs to tell our story. InQuest magazine invited us to spend the afternoon in their office, showing (and playing) our games —which were then just mockups—and ended up making Succession their "Solid Gold: Games You Gotta Buy Before You Die" pick for their November issue. (You may not have personal access to magazines, but you probably have other resources you can draw on to help get word of mouth started.)

Now that we have more copies on hand, we're broadening our review assault to the second layer—finding hard-core gamers who find one or both of our games interesting enough that they want to try them out and will write reviews on them. Giving away games might seem counter-productive—don't you want people to buy them? However, when you compare the $2,000 or more for an ad in a major magazine, how expensive is it to give away a hundred games? And if you're giving those games away to people who will write reviews of them, that will lead to far more sales in the future if they agree with you that your games are good.

The next problem in our promotion plan is getting stores to carry the games and making sure the games are re-ordered when they do sell. While we made some product-specific decisions to make our games attractive to retail stores (I'll talk about that next time), we knew up front that hitting real volumes would require something that maintained retailer interest.

At the risk of sounding like the only thing we know how to do is give away games, our solution was to put together a Demo Master program. Any gamer who gets a retailer to tell us that he or she is responsible and a store regular and who promises us that he or she will run monthly product demos at that store gets a copy of each of our games as well as some other goodies, like dice and a tee-shirt. (Of course, a retailer can also take the initiative to identify a staff member or regular customer as a Demo Master. Each store can have only one Demo Master.)

A demo program does a lot for your game in the mind of a retailer. It demonstrates that you're supporting your products (ironically I think one of the few good things about most ad campaigns is that they show retailers you're serious), and that you have faith in what you're selling. More importantly, the retailer knows that his or her customers are going to see the game in action, with someone actively promoting it… and that this promotion will continue in future months. This gives them a good reason to order a couple of copies to start out with, improves the odds that they will sell fast enough to make it worth restocking and hopefully creates ongoing demand by bringing the game to new customers.

Next time I'll go over some of the tactical details of our promotional efforts—including some mistakes I think we made—and will focus on all the activities leading up to our launch at GenCon last August.

- Chad Ellis

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