Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The "Hobby" in Hobby Games

For a long time, I thought that the term “hobby game market” referred to the group of people who like to play original games with complex strategies.  Because you could not find these types of games at Toys R Us or Walmart, I assumed that the term came from the places where you could buy them before the internet.  In America, there is a retail history of ‘hobby shops’ that sell games, toys, models and a variety of other products for hobbyists.  

This is almost certainly the etymology of the term.  But, it strikes me as equally appropriate that the term refers to the level of professional development of the game’s creators.  “Hobby” might as well refer to the way that most of the designers in the industry need to treat their passion given the level of income that it generates.  Except for a few top end designers who have been able to ride the rising tide of strategy gaming around the globe, no game designer in the “hobby game market” can call it a livelihood.  Hence, by definition, it is a ‘hobby’.  A labor of love with a net negative income profile.

Why is this?

From a business standpoint, it is only the publishers in the hobby game market who can make a livelihood out of it.  They take a majority of the risk by financing projects, but the majority of publishers are only taking a risk on the best of the best designs that they see and they mitigate this risk by publishing dozens of games a year and expansions to popular game franchises.  

Almost every publisher in the industry will tell you how they are flooded by game designs once it becomes known by hobbyists that they are accepting outside submissions and subsequently most established companies don’t.  Even the ones who do almost always filter the process by accepting new designs from only the top notch designers that they personally know.  But, despite this filter, there are still many designs to choose from for each ‘slot’ they have to fill.  

So, the process of business development for a publisher turns into an act akin to curation of a library for the best books to put on display.  Publishers think about their email lists, their product lines and their distribution channels when evaluating a new design as much the intrinsic gameplay.  Thankfully, there are enough publishers in the field that awesome designs almost always find outlets.

It is a good thing for designers and game players that there are publishers willing to take a risk on a new game.  Otherwise, we’d end up with only the 5th anniversary edition of the digital port of the 3rd printing of Settlers of Catan and the art of game design would be replaced by the art of product design.

However, as the head of a design studio, where the design itself must justify the cost of running an organization, I can say that there is little reason to ever design an original game for the “hobby game market”.  

Even though forums like Kickstarter now allow everyone with an idea the opportunity to publish a game themselves, the degree of sophistication and complexity expected of an “Euro game” or writing and production for an ‘American game’ in this market requires a tremendous amount of development time.  Meanwhile, the potential revenue in this market for even a successful product with a high price tag is only a tiny fraction of what design studios in other markets can make.

Design for the “hobby game market” suffers simultaneously from the twin threats of large development cost (in time) and small market size. This ‘high risk, low return’ is exactly the opposite of the definition of an ‘opportunity’ in business investing and consequently the market mechanics of the tabletop game industry will continue to make it almost exclusively a ‘hobby’ for those who design for it.

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