Big Dreams and Lots of Cardstock
A little over a year ago Stephen Glenn sent me an e-mail about a new type of gaming convention he had envisioned. Instead of another con centered around vendors and gaming events, this con would be specifically for amateur game designers. "Protocon" was already spoken for, so he named it Protospiel, a name revealing our personal influences among the European designers.
I'm very happy to say his dream was not a passing fancy, as I've now had the privilege of attending the first two gatherings. Some may say it's too early to tell, but I sincerely believe Protospiel is meeting a need in the gaming industry and its impact will be seen in years to come. If the increase in attendance and quality from the first year is any indication of its future, Protospiel could very well be the gateway leading many new designers to publication in the industry.
This year we met for four days in Lansing, Michigan. I suggested the location, knowing it was central for a number of designers I have met in the region. On a whim, I asked James Kyle if he'd be interested in offering a workshop one day. I didn't know James personally, but years ago we exchanged a few e-mails and I knew he was from the Lansing area. Much to my surprise he responded with great enthusiasm, promising to attend all four days and to provide a workshop on each one. James' own story of publication starts with 50 handmade copies of his HellRail game which sold so well he made a second edition. This one caught the eye of a publisher in the US. Eventually the game was even re-worked and published in Germany. In short, James has experienced what most designers in the hobby dream of. His workshops were relevant and invaluable. I can honestly say his advice, answers and passion for game design made Protospiel 2002 the great event it was for many of us.
About a week before the gathering I received word that Will Niebling would most likely be attending the event. Readers who don't recognize this CEO's name will recognize his company, Mayfair Games (the US publisher of HellRail, by the way). We didn't publicize the visit, as it was not scheduled and subject to change. I'm glad to say, however, that Will and his son William (head of Editing, Design and Development at Mayfair) did show up the second day of the con. They played our games, answered our questions and left us greatly encouraged. They even took one designer's prototype back with them to give it more consideration. It was exciting to see such major players in the industry showing their support of our effort in only its second year.
Rather than turn this article into a "con report" detailing games and events, I decided I'd ask everyone to share a couple highlights. Without fail, James' workshops and the visit from Will and William Niebling topped everyone's lists. I've included some of the responses I gathered below, along with the name of each designer. I hope that the highlights below will serve to encourage other designers to make plans to attend Protospiel 2003.
James Kyle (Glastyn Games, Michigan)
1) Meeting other designers. Some of them will undoubtedly become renowned designers in the near future.
2) The variety in styles of games. I saw light games, middle-weights, children's games, party games, social games, some pure strategy, some with healthy doses of chance.
3) Conversations over lunch and dinner. Discussion of game design in general (as opposed to specifically regarding a particular prototype) is something I'm always starved for.
Jeph Stahl (Canada)
The top on my list of highlights, is the contacts and friends that I have made at the event. With this unique hobby, it was great to meet people with the same passions for designing and building games. The networking was amazing. The Mayfair appearance was a great surprise and the information that they put forth equaled the chance to meet them face to face. James Kyle's lectures and tales of his experiences really gave me the confidence that I could design and produce games as well.
Besides the actual playing of the games, the post game chat was exceptionally valuable. This chat, sometimes taking as long as the game took to play, involved commenting on gameplay, mechanics, and theme. Often we would go into brainstorms, giving new ideas to the designer of the game.
Greg Daigle (Illinois)
Seeing the quality and variety of designs offered by the participants. Good design elevates the event beyond "club" and our roles to more than "hobbyists." Protospiel is a platform for making good designs better and for getting those designs to publishers or the public.
[There's a] genuine concern among the playtesters to make a designer's game the best it could be, while keeping the game the designer's own.
Dave Boyle (Mesomorph Games, Michigan)
I liked the fact that everyone sitting down to play the game was a game designer. This made for much different feedback than you would get normally. Even though it's ultimately non-designer (mostly) you will want to please with the finished product, it was quite valuable to get opinions and see the reactions from other designers.
Justin Love (Illinois)
Great games. While sometimes rough, there were a lot of 'sparks of life' that week. Nothing I can see taking directly of course, but the more great ideas I see, the easier it is to identify my own.
Dominic Crapuchettes (Washington D.C.)
Last year, I was not sure of what would become of Protospiel. This year, it seems obvious that it has the potential to become big.
I feel blessed that I had the opportunity to meet such an amazing group of people. Not only was it a lot of fun, but I learned an amazing amount from everyone and met people that I would love to do business with in the future.
Stephen Glenn (Virginia Beach, VA)
I want to thank James Kyle for his invaluable contributions to Protospiel 2002. I'd also like to thank the Nieblings from Mayfair for stopping by, looking, listening, and answering tons of questions. Finally, I want to thank Mike Petty for doing the bulk of the work putting Protospiel 2002 together. When an event runs as smoothly and as seamlessly as this one, it's testimony to the amount of work put in beforehand. We couldn't have done it without you, Mike!
In addition to the very same things mentioned above, one of my own highlights was a fifteen minute talk I had with William Niebling from Mayfair. He gave me advice on game design that I found it invaluable. I've summarized a few of his points from our talk and from his question/answer session below, hoping other designers will find them useful.
- Good games have a "spark of life" that players can recognize even if the game is at a very rough stage of development. Playtesting and revising over and over will bring out that spark.
- Businesses don't do business with other businesses. People do business with people. The best way to get publishers to seriously consider your designs is to find a way to meet them and actually get to know them if possible. Conventions are an excellent place for this.
- It's ok to ask a publisher about your game every couple weeks if you don't hear anything back from them, but don't overdo it.
- He estimated about 12 out of 300 game submissions even make it through the initial screening process each year. From those, only a couple may be selected for publication. Speaking of publication, a game selected now may not get through the complete publication process until 2005.
Judging from the feedback I've received, we've definitely raised the standard and given ourselves a challenge when it comes to organizing Protospiel 2003. The funny thing is, I was in charge of organizing this year's event and I was completely surprised by so much that took place. I feel like Protospiel 2002 mostly just happened. I think this can largely be attributed to every designer's love for gaming. Game design isn't something we do to make money and there's no reason to make it competitive between designers. Instead, it's something we do because we love to create games and we love to see people enjoying them. From what I've seen, successful designers and even publishers are more than happy to see more talented designers come into the industry. I know for a fact we'll be seeing new games reach the market that were designed by some of the attendees of Protospiel in upcoming months. If Protospiel continues to serve in this way—as an important step in the path of many published designers—I know I'll always be thankful for the opportunity to have been a part of these first two gatherings.
- Mike Petty