Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Is there an echo in here?

By guest blogger, Erik Dewey.

On a recent episode of On Board Games, Donald Dennis and I were discussing game companies and some of the flaws in the games they produce. Don said that companies and designers needed to “get out of the echo chamber.” And that is a great statement.

What is an echo chamber in game design? It is when all of your feedback on your design is from people with a vested interest in the success of your design. Now this could be someone who is the designer’s friend, someone in their game group, someone who doesn’t want to jeopardize being a beta tester in the future, etc.

The problem with these people is twofold. One, since they want your game to succeed, they are more willing to overlook issues that a more neutral party would point out. Second, they tend to communicate with each other in some fashion and so they tend to start having similar opinions, a concept known as “groupthink.”

I remember a great example of the echo chamber when I worked at a mall store that sold computer and video games. The prices on their games or systems were typically a few dollars more expensive than you could get it at Best Buy or Wal-Mart. Not a huge amount, but still it was more expensive. One day some management came into the store to see how things were going. This man asked me if I thought that the fact that the prices were a little higher was a big deal? He phrased it in such a way that he clearly thought it didn’t. Now this was just a seasonal job for me so I honestly didn’t care about my “career” there but still I answered that no, it wasn’t a big deal, even though I’d never buy anything there when half a mile down the street I could avoid mall traffic and buy the game a few bucks cheaper. I fell into the groupthink and the manager heard exactly what he wanted to hear.

The big problem is that people in the echo chamber are also the easiest to recruit for help. They are the ones who have seen the game from the beginning and played many iterations of it. They know what you meant in the rule book, even if it doesn’t actually say that. They understand that the fiddly parts of the games are actually a lot less fiddly than they used to be.

Realize that the implications of the echo chamber go farther than just the design of the game. They can extend into other design decisions like token design, rule book layout, graphic design, even things like card quality or box size. I’ve seen quite a few board games that had decisions made on them, like say card thickness, that were clearly the wrong one. I can easily see the designer trying to pick between two different card thicknesses and looking at the cost difference. They really need to go with the cheaper one, but will it make a difference in the satisfaction of the game? The echo chamber says no it will be fine. Go with the cheaper cards. That is what the designer wants to hear, so he follows through. When the game is released the first four posts on Boardgamegeek all deal with how flimsy the cards are and how people are afraid that the cards won’t last more than a few plays.

So how do you exit the chamber? The designer needs degrees of separation from the respondents. Blind play tests by people who have never seen the game before, friends of friends experiencing it for the first time. Even having unassociated people just read the rule book for clarity and layout will bring out issues the designer hadn’t seen in all the time they worked on their product.

The main reason this is so important is that the moment your game is released, the players and reviewers will be solidly outside of the echo chamber and they will point out every flaw in the game. Rather than spending your marketing time telling others how great your new game is, you are spending it in damage control, a place no one wants to be at.

So if you are involved in the design process at any level, be it game, components, collateral, marketing, etc. Be sure that when you solicit opinions that some of those giving the opinions have separation from you and you will avoid the problems of the echo chamber.

Erik Dewey is an author, game reviewer, and co-presenter on the popular podcast On Board Games. One of Erik's driving goals is to see families strengthened and have a sense of identity. He is a big proponent of game play to help in these goals. You can visit his piece of the internet at

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Advertise your game without actually advertising your game!

Or, public relations (PR) and one way it works.

I found a couple of good articles recently about board games and family time.

Board games can offer many benefits for families and Tabletop games allow face-to-face activity.

Both tell a similar story - that playing board games is a great way to bring families together. Each article features quotes from industry influencers and others.

You may also notice that each article makes some game recommendations, and even references some local game shops, where interested readers can learn more about the hobby, and maybe even stop in and buy a game or two while they're there.

One side benefit to this digital information age we are living in is that there are thousands of media outlets, in all shapes and sizes, that are literally screaming for interesting content for their audiences to consume.

That's good for folks with an interesting story to tell.

But that's the trick.

These articles are examples of "human interest stories", which we see constantly in the media and all over the Internet. The basic difference with this type of PR activity is that the focus is not on the product(s) or companies. The focus is on a broader interest/need that will attract eyeballs. It is need/benefit focused.

You'll notice that they aren't describing a game. Games are mentioned but the designer or publisher isn't rattling off all the mechanics or telling you how it's played.

Human interest story = focus on audience needs and benefits

Your company, product, or brand is in there as an "oh, by the way..."

And when your messaging appears in this type of story, it needs to fit with the story and can't be a hard sell. It must fit with the need/benefit message you've told in the rest of the story, otherwise it'll get sniffed out as another advertisment.

There are many strategies and tactics for a well-rounded PR program, and of course they are dependent upon what you are trying to achieve. Each strategy is going to be tailored to accomplish different things. I'll delve into others in future posts.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Board games actually fulfill a human need!?

I sit in front of a laptop pretty much all day at work.

Sound familiar?

That is another motivation for me to get out of the office 4-5 times a week and hit the gym!

And there's the fact that my books are replaced by my Kindle, my CDs are gone, and the list goes on. You can all relate to this in one way or another.

A recent post from Fast Company, Forget Your Email: We All Crave The Physical, based on a new trend report that found that we still cherish those physical artifacts. In fact, there may be some kind of innate need to touch things and experience things in "real-life", instead of only digitally.

Interestingly, this is exactly the type of thing that board games address. In spades.

My son, after a memorable win at Colosseum.
So, we like to play physical games. We need to touch things. It probably even meets some innate need we have... so what?

From a marketing point of view, understanding this type of thing not only allows us to understand our customers better, but it also helps us tap into new markets, develop messaging, products, and all kinds of things.

Here's but two examples:

1. Messaging:

Developing messaging and positioning is a whole thing all by itself. But one of the keys is to understand what makes the market tick.

Why do the customers care? Why should the market care?

Thanks to this Fast Company post (and the trend report), we now know that gaming is probably helping to satisfy a need we have for physical experiences.

Yeah, this just got real.

2. Product planning:

Knowing the needs we are satisfying helps us focus our product planning and development.

What is the real value we are providing with this product? How can we differentiate?

Think about ways to enhance the physical experience. How can you package and/or develop products in ways to achieve those experiences we crave?

Is there something you can do that is unique or especially memorable?

Hopefully this has triggered all kinds of creative thinking. And there will be future posts that will explore this topic further.

Now, go have fun and embrace the physical!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

International TableTop Day 2013 - Aftermath and Future Impact?

I think it is safe to say that the First Annual International TableTop Day was a success.

If nothing else, the pages, and pages, of results I received from typing "International TableTop Day" into my favorite search engine, combined with all the positive posts from retailers on my BGG thread, pretty much seals the deal.

My friendly local game store (FLGS), Off the Charts Games in Gresham, OR, told me that his store was packed and rocking all day. They even had walk-ins investigate what was going on and stick around to participate. I'm sure this type of thing occurred more than once.

If you want to see a recap video, or want to share your photos/videos with TableTop, or read more about how the day went, you can check it out here.

How will this day impact the industry? It's another example that the hobby is experiencing strong growth. Events like this will help keep the buzz going.

Does it portend continued growth for the hobby? I think so.

As the hobby grows, there are some things to watch for, and think about, while you are designing, selling, and marketing your games, planning your Kickstarter campaigns, and otherwise launching your Global Gaming Empires.

The obvious one is that as the hobby increases in popularity, there will be more gamers looking to buy games.

But the thing to watch for is how many of the new gamers move up and down the board game spectrum, starting with "gateway" games, then trying out different types and complexities of games.

And finally seeing how many of the new gamers stick around and become hardcore gamers, forming their own game groups and become ambassadors for the hobby.

The general impact should be a sustained increase in sales.

But the risk is going to come into play when you are trying to forecast what types of games will sell. And depending upon how long this window of popularity stays open will have a huge impact on those predictions.

Hopefully, we're not going to experience a board game bubble-burst, where a convergence of Kickstarter over-saturation, over-extended hardcore gamers, a board game publisher scandal, and a podcaster going into early retirement, causes the hobby to sink like a .com stock in '00 and leave you stuck without a game group to enjoy all your new games with.

Everything goes in cycles. And in the meantime, we're going to have a huge number of new games to enjoy with our friends and families.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

"No, but my game is different!"

Stop me if you've heard this one before....

A guy walks into a bar and orders a beer. The bartender lifts his eyebrows and says, "instead of ordering that yucky national brand, you should try this local brew."

You think for a second, shrug, and say, "what's so special about it?"

The bartender harumphs and says "It's local, and it's the same price."

At this point, if you care about trying new things, or want to support something local, then you can base your decision about whether or not to try the local beer on one of those criteria. The only difference the bartender used to differentiate was that one was local.

I chose beer, but this is a "conversation" that occurs in every industry. It happens in the halls between product managers, marketing people, sales people, and on and on, up and down the line.

This decision making occurs with buyers and consumers often at a subconscious level, but sometimes they will verbalize it as "why should I try your widget instead of this one?" Or the classic "I already use this widget, why should I change?" (you'd better have a GREAT answer ready for that question, BTW.)

This boils down to differentiation.

Differentiation can come from anything, really. But the one important factor you have to remember with differentiation, is that it occurs in the mind of your target audience.

Differentiation is defined by your target audience. It's only differentiation if they find it meaningful or relevant. Not you.

For example, you've designed a board game where you place workers on spots to activate actions or generate resources. You decide to make it about zombies. Does that mean it is differentiated? Maybe - maybe not. Maybe you should ask some gamers who like zombie games for their opinions. Or, ask gamers who like worker-placement games. My vote is to ask them both.

When you are designing a game (AKA "developing your product") hopefully one of the earliest questions you are concerned with, and asking yourself is, "is my game different?" And that's a hard question to answer.

Hopefully you'll ask that question early in the design process, because the traditional product development theory is that the sooner you make design/development changes, the easier and less expensive they are to make.

So, think about differentiating your game. Think about it as early as possible, and keep thinking about it throughout your design and development process.

There are thousands of game submissions passing through game publishers and being Kickstarted... and you'll stand a greater chance of getting their attention - and the attention of gamers - if your game is differentiated.

Have fun designing your game - keep differentation part of the process - and good luck!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Market research is a waste

"Market research is a waste of time"

Imagine hearing that while sitting in a marketing class, listening to a late '90s hipster-ad-exec type.

Yeah, I smirked, and I looked over and saw the marketing prof smirk also.

I will always remember that phrase, which was spoken by a guest speaker at an upper level marketing class I took while at Portland State University. The speaker was a bigwig at Weiden & Kennedy.

Mr. Anti-market research followed up his blasphemy by saying that if we wanted to understand people (AKA "market research") just read good novels. Fiction as a means to understand human behavior.

I love to read. I read all kinds of stuff, including novels. I hear his point - but I'm not sure about how applicable this is. However, market research is definitely a double-edged sword as well.

I have always loved research.

I have a minor in sociology, so I love research that tries to profile groups and tell stories about what types of features, products, or advertising messages they would respond to. I have always found these studies fascinating. I have spent a great deal of my career performing, planning, interpreting, and analyzing all types of research. Focus groups, printed surveys (old school!), ethnography studies, mining secondary research for relevant nuggets (my most popular activity), customer support logs, online surveys, etc. All can be very useful. All can be a complete waste.

The trick for me has always been patterns, and who is saying it?

Sometimes people who aren't your target audience will be very vocal about something. This presents some special challenges - who are these people, how/why did they get your product, and, most importantly, how are you going to treat this input?

As you are noticing, this is a long and involved topic all by itself. But one of my goals with this blog is to give folks some "thumbnails" in regards to marketing.

In regards to Market Research:

1. Stay focused on what problem you are trying to solve. Sometimes you are just trying to understand/wrap your head around an issue. Sometimes you have a very specific question you need answered. Either way, make sure you aren't forcing yourself into a decision-making situation using "research" that was never meant for that function.

2. Be open-minded. This is the most common error I've seen. Don't jump to conclusions, be as empathetic as possible. This is actually going to be its own blog post. No joke.

3. Don't wait for all the information. You're never going to have all the information. This is a business truism, and a life truism. Risk exists, and there are always trade-offs. As they say, if it was easy, everyone would do it. Do your best with what you have, and when the deadline approaches, make the best decision you can. Just beware of the ramifications and weigh them accordingly.

4. Remember biases. Biases exist in many shapes and sizes. Biases are pervasive and color our lives. Don't forget one of the most common biases - the bias of ommission. NOT revealing things is also a bias. Anytime you are asking people about things you're going to get all kinds of baggage. Don't try to over-analyze this, just keep it in mind and learn what you can.

5. Use research to springboard. Anytime you are doing research, file it away and refer back to it periodically. This is a great way to spur new ideas for products, messages, marketing programs, or just to find new ways to think about things.

In summary, there's a time and place for market research, and there are good and bad ways to apply that research.

BTW If you are interested in reading an "official" definition of Market Research...