|Guest Post by
When we first released Battlestations in 2004 we made it with money borrowed from friends and family.
The game was almost exclusively produced in cardboard. The art was what we could coax out of friends who had day jobs to get back to. Our initial pre-order before we hit the streets was 36 units.
Just about nobody knew who we were.
Things have changed. Thanks in large part to the fans all over the world, Battlestations is no longer unheard of. There are avid fans who are helping the community to grow. Thanks to the magic of crowdfunding, we’re not limited to the money we can scrape together. We’re not limited to cardboard and we’re not limited to an initial pre-order of 36 units.
As of this moment we’ve got about 900 backers on our Kickstarter and we’re halfway through the campaign.
It is relatively simple to have a smash hit project.
It just isn’t easy.
For starters you must be a geek.
If you aren’t 100% into what you are doing then you’re not the right person for the job. The sooner you let your inner geek free, the sooner you can be doing what it is you are meant to do. I have been a gamer and a fan of science fiction my whole life. I wanted Battlestations before I knew I was a gamer. My friends and I would play Star Trek as kids in 1975.
Your project needs to be something that is fundamental to who you are.
I’m also a gamer and a game designer. I have been reworking games forever. That extra $500 on Free Parking? I invented that. Just kidding. Everybody invented that but everybody who did made a mistake. It artificially inflates the economy and ruins what little balance there is in that game. Nonetheless, game design is another of my passions. It is what I think about when I’m on long drives. I don’t get enough sleep as a rule, so when I wake up I have games on the brain because that is when my brain is most fresh. I’ve been designing games for 40 years and publishing them for 30 years. This isn’t something I dabble in.
With the original publication of Battlestations in 2004, I got the help of my brother Jason Siadek. I should point out here that it was his idea to make a video game of a first person shooter where you were on a ship that could fly. It seemed so obvious to me after he said this that I thought for years that it was my idea. I had been doing starship games and roleplaying games and even played a modular starship roleplaying game Space Quest that almost scratched this itch but it wasn’t until after Jason and I realized we weren’t going to be able to find the money to make a video game that I came up with the basics for Battlestations. So it just might be that the best idea I ever had wasn’t really my idea at all.
To produce Battlestations we needed art and printing and paper and boxes and dice and glass beads and money. I used to take my infant daughter Arden to Bed Bath & Beyond and look at the glass beads in their decorative nonsense section and think “at a dollar a bag, I could afford to put 10 of these in my game.” I’d had a game business before Gamesmiths so I’d learned something about the industry the hard way as that company went under. This was more of my education and it paid off when I was starting Gorilla Games. I had contacts and knowledge that you just get from being around a business. I also knew enough to know that I couldn’t do the art and layout and computer stuff so I brought Jason in as my partner. Together, we begged and borrowed money and art and talent from our friends and family. Knowing what you cannot do is important because you can’t do everything and knowing where to get help is crucial.
The next thing we did was produce the games. I got the paper at cost from my friend in the paper business. He buys paper by the container so getting somebody to sell us two pallets was him calling in a favor from a supplier. We sourced printing in Michigan but everything else was done in L.A. We got the paper printed on one side and then laminated together and die cut. They were off square by 1/8 of an inch and there was great concern but it turned out all right. We rented a truck and drove the paper and the boxes around and I recalled the shrinkwrapping machine I’d given away when Gamesmiths cratered. It was literally hand made in every sense of the word.
I still didn’t know about marketing (and I still have a lot to learn). Jason and I went to conventions. GenCon, GenCon Socal, Origins, Essen, Strategicon, Dundracon. We went everywhere we could to show off the game and built not just a fan base but lasting friendships. We learned about how to get a free hotel room by running a ton of events. We lucked into meeting amazing generous people who put us up and cared for us. We also played a lot of Battlestations and learned from the fans about how to make it better. More about that later.
Eventually, the larger distributors picked up Battlestations and we were chugging along.
Two years into the project we were turning a small profit. At the time, I was a stay at home dad so my wife was basically supporting our young family. I remember negotiating a print deal (this was for “Lifeboat”) with Carta Mundi for thousands of dollars with the phone crooked against my shoulder as I changed a diaper. With my first game, I always referred to the “warehouse” when talking to distributors as if they didn’t know it was my garage. Now I make jokes that being self published allows you to play “Cask of Amontillado” as a solitaire LARP.
While being a game publisher I’ve worked as a substitute teacher, a nanny and various other odds and ends that allowed me to be there for my kids and still pursue my dream job.
Your Dream Job.
You might love it but you aren’t likely to love everything about it. Signing my game when I sell it at a convention is awesome! Explaining my game to somebody who dismisses it derisively is less awesome. Unpacking boxes with hundreds of games in them at the start of a big show is a lot of work. Repacking most of those games after the show can be utterly demoralizing. Filling out tax forms and dealing with government agencies, getting required insurance for a convention, doing the accounting and lots more stuff just sucks. Even the great part (designing) can be tarnished when you’ve got a deadline and you know you have to make it work. I know all of my designs would be better if I let them cook longer but you get to a point where you’ve got to get it published.
As of this moment I make less than minimum wage at my dream job. I wouldn’t trade it for anything but it isn’t easy.
Growing the game also meant adding more content.
We added material for play as well as background materials. With 9 new books in 10 years, Battlestations expanded in scope and scale. I experimented with fleet action rules and tested roleplaying. I lucked into a phenomenal local playtest group that really understands the game and works to make it better. The world is a great laboratory for making your game better. People can test combinations in a way that you didn’t imagine. I learned from people by teaching them the game. When I would show people the ship control card with a space for “speed” and they would say, “Oh, so that’s how fast my ship goes each phase” I would correct them with the explanation of my byzantine movement system. I got tired of correcting them and realized ships did need to move faster and more simply. This process repeated itself over and over as the fans taught me how to design my game.
The final breakthrough came when I was trying to figure out how I could put fewer modules on the table so I could fit 28mm miniatures on it. In order to do so, I had to make the game tighter and cleaner and it was obvious that this was good.
I knew I was going to make this new edition. The fans were clamoring for it and yet, I still wasn’t ready. I still didn’t have a clue about marketing.
My friend Joey Vigour had just kickstarted his game Chaosmos for $140k or so. More importantly, he followed through delivering high quality components including plastic miniatures. I had to get him on my team. It was also through Joey that I met Dan Blanchett who is an awesome art director. I had a few other art directors through the years that lead me to some great artists but Dan is the right guy for this project.
At Joey’s suggestion, I got Steve Hamilton (of Spectre Ops fame) to do the new modules. I’d like to say the pieces fell into place but the fact is that Joey and I (okay, mostly Joey) worked hard to make them fall into place.
A picture of Joey and I working out of our garage.
The process of running a successful Kickstarter involves a lot of media groundwork. I’ve been doing podcasts or listening to them or emailing about them every day since long before the project launched. I’ve made a few friends over the years who are gracious enough to help me out with advice and some have even donated some missions to add some bling to my project.
The bottom line is this: Make something awesome.
Spend a lot of time and money refining it and sharing it and building a following. Make it better. Make it prettier and make it work better. Respect your fans. They are the ones who make your life possible. Find the best people you can to work with. Trust them but take responsibility for your own decisions. Work hard and joyfully.
You can check out the Battlestations Second Edition on Kickstarter HERE