Opportunities in the Board Game Industry

A recent post on a forum asking if it was a good idea to start an online game store had me thinking.  The simple answer is no (definitely not in America, not so great in Canada either really).  However, the fact stands that there are a significant number of opportunities in the industry currently which don’t involve direct retail of board games.  I figured I’d detail some of them here (at least from my view point).  Note that I don’t, in most cases, have direct experience so it’s an outsider perspective.

1.  Game Reviewer

Firstly, let’s start by saying that there are only a few reviewers out there who do this full-time.  This is a long-term play as you need to build up enough of a fanbase that they would be willing to pay for you to continue development & publication.  It took us nearly 4 years (over 100+ videos) before we ran our successful Patreon campaign and even then, at $400 per video which came out every 2 weeks, it wouldn’t really be enough for most people to live on.  However, we also only published a video every few weeks and focused on significantly higher production values than most game reviewers, so if you had the time, ability and funds to do this for a year (or two), it should be possible to make a full-time career from it.

The advantage of this is that you’d be playing games constantly unlike other parts of this business.  After all, part of your business is playing games  The negative is that it takes a lot of time to create a video review, so you’d be on a constant ‘mill’ of content development.

2. Game Accessory Retailer / Manufacturer

An interesting area that has cropped up is the development and sale of game accessories.  Whether it’s sleeves, tokens or inserts, there does seem to be some demand for this.  My guess is that the actual margins on producing and selling multiple tokens is quite high once you get past the set-up cost.  The negative is that you are targeting a small portion of an already small market, so I’m not sure there’s enough of a market to generate a decent income.  On the other hand, if you can combine this with sales to publishers for their prototype designs, there could be a decent business here.

3. Publisher

This is probably one of the two areas that I’d certainly look into more significantly if I had the time and capital.  With Kickstarter available these days, capital requirements are actually significantly lower than previously (I’d guess between $3-5k per game for artwork, design and testing and prototypes to be sent to reviewers).  Risk is significantly lower as you are able to crowd-fund the cost of publication to start.  The major disadvantage (beyond the significant time investment to find and playtest games) is the time-lag.  It seems to take between 8 to 12 months to produce a game and most backers would prefer to see the delivery of their first game before you begin Kickstarting a second game.  As such, until you’ve developed a significant following (and/or have a decent hit for a game), your income is likely to be pretty low for the first few years.

4. Game Publishing Management (ala Game Salute)

Game publishing management is something I haven’t seen since tried since Game Salute.  Rather than being a full publisher (purchasing rights, developing the art, etc.), that there might be a space in the market for someone to work as a contractor to aid in the marketing, design & manufacturing and importing of the game.  Certainly it’d require quite a bit of knowledge in this area and and it’d be tricky to work out compensation.  If you charged an hourly rate, you might not be as attractive to a new publisher, but if you did it on a commission basis, you run the risk of a failed Kickstarter (or low funding Kickstarter) since you aren’t personally choosing / editing the games yourself.

5. Distributor

This is really only for those with a lot of money and probably not in the USA. I know at least in Canada, we could probably do with a well-funded West Coast distributor and I’m sure there are significant opportunities for distribution in other countries.  When I say a lot of capital though, I’m talking in the millions.

6. Game Cafes / Restaurants

The hottest trend in retail is game cafes & restaurants.  This seems to be quite profitable if you could can locate a good spot that is large enough and can be staffed regularly.  This is the other area I’d recommend putting money into if you had the desire to get involved with the game industry.  Unlike publishing though, this requires significantly more retail.   From my estimatation, you probably need at least CAD$30k to barebones launch a business and I’d really not want to get involved without at least $60k.  Comfortably, you’d be better of with $100k.

7. Rulebook reviewer / editor

If you’re reading this, you know how many bad rulebooks there are out there.  If you have the skillset to write good rules, this is probably a good market to get into.  This is however (like being a cover artist / board designer) something that is very skill dependent.

8. Game Designer

Unless you become a publisher yourself, most game designer’s aren’t able to make a living just designing board games.  On the other hand, you don’t have to put up a lot of money for this and who knows, maybe you’ll design the next Pandemic / Catan / Scythe and end up raking in royalties forever.

9. Comprehensive Board Game Website (competitor to BGG)

Everyone thinks the design on BGG is horrendous.  They’ve been working on a version 2 of the site forever.  So far, no one has come up with a serious competitor to the site but considering the sheer volume of advertising / marketplace sales and industry information there is, I would have to say there’s a significant revenue source here.  Of course, this requires specific skillsets, a decent capital bank and reliable servers, but I’m sure there’s a business case in here somewhere.

10. Kickstarter Fulfillment

We do this as Starlit Citadel Logistics.  There is certainly money in this business, but it is fast getting extremely competitive in Canada & the USA.  Outside of those countries, South America and Asia seems wide open and potentially Europe (or at least, there’s no leading player in Europe from what I understand).  The biggest barrier to entry in this area is shipping cost.  Many of the established players are able to get significant volume discounts from the courier companies and as such, unless you have an existing business that does a lot of shipping, this could be a major disadvantage.  Other things to watch out for in this business is that income is not predictable – you could do 3 Kickstarter’s in a week and then nothing for a month or 3.  Lastly, most Kickstarter’s break out (from what we’ve seen / been told) into the following volumes – 60% USA, 10% Canada, 20% Europe & 10% everywhere else.  If you assume most Kickstarter projects fund at the 1000 backer level, there’s only a small number of shipments everywhere but the USA which means you’d need to get a significant number of projects signed up to make a decent living.  Then again, there are always the mega projects (Kingdom Death anyone) that help pay the bills for months…

 

IT Costs of Running an E-Commerce store

Running an E-commerce store is a strange thing.  We spend a significant portion of our budget on IT costs each year, updating and adjusting the store to make it more user friendly and bug fixing.   To give yo an idea, it’s about the same amount that we spend on marketing.  In many ways, I look at the IT budget as a mixture of a maintenance / fixtures upgrade budget and rent.  You see, at a guess, we probably spend about 50% of our budget on adding new features and the other 50% on fixing bugs.  It’s a strange process in that each new feature that you add generally means bugs in the future.   It’s also part and parcel of running an online store – when software updates – on your server, on your site, on browsers – you need to update your site design to ensure your site still works for them.  The more complex / sophisticated your site is, the more chances there are of something breaking.

Self-Hosting vs SaaS

Part of the reasoon for the need to update our site and it costing more is that we self-host our site.  We have our own servers, our own domain name and our installation is not linked to any other major network.  There are a lot of Software-as-a-Service systems out there like Shopify or Magento Go, but for us, keeping a self-hosted server allows a level of flexibility that we desire.  With a SaaS system, we’d be reliant on the features that have already been released and any new features we wanted would have to wait.  And god help you if you run into an unusual problem – I’ve seen and heard of horror stories where companies, with an unusual error are unable to get it fixed on a SaaS solution.

Hosted solutions give you more flexibility – but generally cost significantly more to keep up an running.   If a major browser update changes how your site shows up  / functions with the browser, you have to pay for the development / fix yourself.  there’s no spreading it around multiple sites. Well, okay, it’s possible that a general patch is released on the platform you are on – but updating to the patch generally brings its own headaches as you then have to update all your modules / fixes / add-on’s to the new update.  That can sometimes be more expensive than just having a patch set-up just for your site.

Different Models

As mentioned, we update our site on an on-going basis.  On the other hand, I know of other e-commerce businesses who spend very little on this.  They get a basic (or more complex site) up, pay a large lump sum payment and put off any other updates till it’s time to revise the site again.  It’s no a bad model, just like using the SaaS model isn’t ‘bad’; just different.  The advantage is that costs are significantly lower and cashflow is less effected on an on-going basis.  However, this often means that when you do have to update the site, you are miles behind and often have to scrap / redo the entire site to bring yourself up to code.

It can also mean that you miss out on customers – customers who want / need a specific feature on your site that you don’t provide might decide it’s not worth working your site and move on.

Overall, if you do run an e-commerce site, expect to budget for website development – whether it’s a one-off payment or an on-going one like us.

Building the Game Wizard

As many of you have, hopefully, seen; our Game Wizard has been released to the wide world.  Hopefully everyone is finding it as useful as the infographic which it is based on.  I thought in the blog post I’d talk abit about the development process.

The Data

The data was actually very easy – we already created it for the infographic.  Luckily, since we know the games well enough, creating the data for the infographic wasn’t that hard either – it was just a matter of taking the time to develop the various trees and making sure we didn’t double-up.

The Development

In this case, I went outside my usual developers for the site and used another 3rd party.  I had been talking to them for a while now on a few other infographics and they had shown me the work they had done before so I figured they could do this well enough.  The quote they provided was acceptable too, somewhat on the higher end of what we wanted to pay but decent.  I decided not to try the oDesk / Freelance job site this time as I wanted a design that would be coded decently well and previous experience had shown that results from such sites were widely variable.

With this local design company, we had to go through a couple of design changes, mostly tweaks to the original design they sent us.  The major issue came when they started trying to hook the design / information up to our sites database.  Unfortunately, Magento is an extremely complicated e-commerce platform and while I had asked them their experience (and received assurances of competence), they actually had no idea what they were getting into.  Instead of a 1 month delivery date, it took over 3 months with numerous back and forths.  One last, major issue, was the huge delay in displaying products when an item was finally called.  In the end, we decided to take the application as it stood.

Once we got the files, we took the final application and brought it to our usual developers (Collins Harper) and had them code in a cache system.  It should be running properly now, with a cache set-up to run once a day to keep load-times for product pages nice and fast.

In the end, we got an app, but it wasn’t what we fully wanted.  Unfortunately, the budget has now been spent.

The Final Product

So, you’ve seen the app/  It’s not what we wanted – the front-end is nice, but there are certain aspects of the backend that we really wished had been done.

  • It’s not possible for us to integrate the design into the main site without ripping the entire code apart.
  • There is no backend so all changes have to be hard-coded. This was definitely not part of our intention.
  • The code is extremely simple for others to steal.  Considering the work we’ve done, we aren’t particularly thrilled with that.  It’s not something we asked for, but it’s something we need to think about next time.

The Lessons

Firstly, we should have made sure to get full clarification (and double-check again and again) when we agreed to the work.  We thought we had an agreement on a few aspects of the business – like the backend CMS structure – but didn’t.

Secondly, double-check the credentials of the developers you use.  In particular, the software / the systems that you use – make sure the developers you hire really do know how the system works and what can / can’t be done.  If not, you’ll just add a lot of headache to the development.

Thirdly,if you have access to a developer you trust, work with them beforehand to develop a  structure / developer brief.  It’ll make your life a lot simpler and make the first issue much less of a contention.

Lastly, for me – I think I’ll go back to testing out outsourced developers for one-off projects like this (at least if CH is busy).

Developing the site

We’ve been going through a major upgrade of the site recently.  There’s been a few reasons for this:

  1. Time on my part to deal with coding
  2. Time on our developers part to work with us complex code
  3. Funds for purchasing modules / development work

At the same time, we’ve got to balance both the cost of an upgrade to the site with its potential benefits.  Most changes fall into one of three major categories:

  1. Front-End Design Changes
  2. Back-End Administrative Changes
  3. Bug Fixes

Front-End Design Changes generally focus on making the website more user friendly and interactive.  So the addition of the Social Share buttons to the site, the new Checkout are all front-end design changes.

Back-End Administrative changes help us work more efficiently.  Example would be integrations with Canada Post, a stock updater and edits to our PDF invoices.

Bug Fixes are more complex.  When we can, especially if it’s a bad bug; we fix the problem as quickly as possible.  However, to fix a bug we need to replicate it.  Unfortunately, with some of our more persistent bugs in the system; they are extremely difficult to replicate.  Without going through a tens-of-thousand dollar bug-hunt; they’re just not feasible.

What to Fix & When?

The obvious constraint is funds.  All these changes require funds – whether its purchasing pre-made modules that should work out-of-the-box or having our developers write the code for us specifically.

The Benefit of the change is another major factor – if it’s fixing a major bug or adding a new, must-have feature to the site; we’ll attempt to get on it immediately.  However, some projects are multi-week projects and those then require both the funds and the free time to complete.

Lastly, there’s the Complexity of the project.  It’s why you see a lot of small, simple projects done before the major changes.  Since I can hack my way around basic code; I tackle all the small projects when I have time; leaving the complex code problems to the real developers.

An Open Letter to Magento Extension Developers

Dear Developers;

A few, small pointers on how to actually run and manage your Extensions.

  1. If your extension is not stable; do NOT advertise as Stable.  Stable means when I plug it in to a clean, un-modded Magento installation it works.  I do not have to hack around your code to make it work.
  2. Make sure your documentation lists the steps required in detail to make sure your Extension actually works.   I do not want to wade through 20 pages to find that one line of explanation of why this isn’t working.
  3. If what you”re selling is considered Stable, you should be offering a refund.  If not, I’m not going to trust your extension as far as I can throw it.  Yes, I expect there might be a few small hiccups installing into a modded configuration; that can’t be helped.  But your code should be stable enough to handle the vast majority of additional extensions / hacks.  If it isn’t, then it isn’t very good is it?
  4. Do not turn on auto-updates.  I just spent an entire day hacking around your code to make it workable with my configuration.  I don’t need you to auto-update it just after I’m done to destroy all my work.
  5. When you do upgrade your extensions , inform us.  We don’t watch your blog with baited breath for the next upgrade, especially if we’ve fixed all the bugs already for ourselves.
  6. When you do inform us, do give us a time and date so we can make sure to be around to fix the site when you break it for us. I don’t want to come back on a Sunday evening to find my site broken because you updated the software again without telling us.

Hopefully, these simple, basic customer service suggestions will help you gain more customers and many less pissed off customers like me.   As it is, my experience has made me become very wary about buying any commercial extensions.

Yours sincerely;

A Highly Irate Magento Extension Customer

Citadel Citizenship Reward Program

Well, after months and at least 3 unsuccessful attempts, we’ve finally got the Customer Rewards Program up and running on the site.  Each attempt to fix it has taken at least 4 to 5 hours, maybe even 8 hours.  A significant chunk of time on my side, never mind the developers we worked with.

Our first attempt was using the software built into the site already, attempting to use a variety of system options.  Unfortunately, the only way to do it that way actually broke the site. In addition, it wasn’t automated and once we got to a few thousand people, it really was a problem.  In this particular case, it was just me.

Our second attempt was a minor rehash of the first, attempting to use a hack around on the code to get it working.  Again, it didn’t work, though we had the developers working with us on this at the time.

Our third attempt, again with our developers was with a module load-in.  Now, this was supposedly a stable module that would work well and give us a customer rewards program with points instead of a fixed amount discount that the above two attempts were based on.  It was also more flexible, with the ability to discount specific products, provide variable points for all orders and even go backwards to older orders.  It was a great system – and incredibly broken once the developers started looking into it.  That took an business day, hacking around the system in an attempt to get things working before we threw our hands up.

The latest (and final) fix only took us 6 hours.  Quite an expensive module was purchased, which was supposedly all fixed up.  Guess what? It wasn’t – and we had to hack around the system again, loading up the actual points system and then fixing errors as they cropped up.  Including, worst of all, in our checkout.

Still, our customer rewards program is finally up and running.  We unfortunately do not have the ability to go backwards to give customers reward points for previous orders, but the system we did purchase actually has a bit more flexibility going forwards.  Among other things, we can:

  • give reward points for tagging and reviewing products
  • give variable rewards points for specific board games
  • award points for specific instances in the shopping cart (e.g. 2 of the same kind, or 3 games of a type)

And even better, points can be spent in a variety of ways including:

  • on specific products at a variable rate at a variable price (so points could be spent at a higher discount rate)
  • in the shopping cart to discount the entire order
  • for shipping – potentially allowing us to offer a second free shipping option

And those are just the one’s I’ve figured out.  The system is quite complex, and I’m sure I’m missing ways of giving points and spending them.  I’m quite excited, and I hope you are too at the ways we can improve our service.