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Monday, August 29, 2011

Tinsman on game design

On Lewis Pulsipher's recommendation, I read Brian Tinsman's The Game Inventor's Guidebook (Morgan James Publishing, New York 2008).  Tinsman, game design manager for new business at Wizards of the Coast, describes the book's target audience as "really just for one person...the lucky person destined to create the next category-defining blockbuster game."  In fact, though, his book addresses anyone who seeks to have a game published, one way or another, with valuable advice and insight toward making a game concept into a reality.

Tinsman opens with a series of anecdotes about four of the wildly successful games of our time - Trivial Pursuit, Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons and Dragons, and Pokemon.  These stories of blockbuster proportions are exciting to read, inspiring to imagine, and yet a little daunting to the hopeful designer.  What are the odds of coming up with the next Monopoly?  Is that too crazy to consider?

Perhaps, but Tinsman offers much more than just a review of the peak games of the age.  He follows with chapters on the nature of the industry, the considerations that publishers have when they consider a new design, and the motivations behind designing (or as he likes to say, "inventing") games.  I found especially interesting his description of the inner workings of a game company and the internal considerations that weigh on whether a game is published.

Tinsman spells out four "markets" for games, and here I could quibble with his taxonomy, but really, his classification works for the purposes of his book, which come down to the different ways to approach design, publication, and marketing.  He categorizes games among the following markets:
  • Mass market (what you'd find in a big box retailer like Target or WalMart)
  • Hobby games (roleplaying, miniatures, and trading card games)
  • American specialty games (a "catch-all" category for small print-run games like strategy games and "how to host a mystery")
  • European market (German boardgames, largely)
  • Others (unique market type games, such as sports games that might sell in sports-related retail outlets, etc)
Okay, that's really five, but he spends little meaningful text on the "Other" category except as an out for the types of games that he doesn't cover otherwise.  Although the average gamer might not break down games into these categories, they work for purposes of addressing the different ways that a designer would approach a publisher with a prototype and the different ways that a game would be published and marketed.

Tinsman provides considerable detail on specific games and companies that he feels the reader should become familiar with.  Many are familiar to the regular gamer, but a few gems emerge that are worth investigation.

Self-publishing had always struck me as a last great act of desperation, but that's not so much the case with the resources available to today's self-publisher.  Tinsman spends some time discussing the special considerations that have to be taken into account to try to bring a game to market yourself.  The upside potential and the downside risk are both staggering.

A nice aspect of Tinsman's format is that he intersperses the book with interviews of key figures in the game industry and "Insider's Views" on publishers, information that he is in a unique position to provide as a longtime member of the industry himself.  He provides remarkably insightful perspective on what designers and industry figures consider in bringing a game from concept to market.  These vignettes make clear that there is more than one way to skin the boardgame cat, and different people have different priorities and visions on what they hope to bring to the gaming world.

With all of this background, Tinsman walks the reader step-by-step through the process of conceiving and scoping a design, developing it, all the way through getting it on contract.  This final walk-through brings all the elements of the book together into a soup-to-nuts accounting of all the steps that a designer will need to follow to make a game concept into something that people can buy, take home, and play.  

Appendices include considerable resources - contact information for game companies, brokers, conventions, as well as sample forms for letters and agreements that the designer will find handy in conducting business with potential publishers.

Brian Tinsman's Guidebook came well recommended by Lewis Pulsipher, and I am not disappointed.  I hope my readers find it as valuable for gaining insight into the workings of the gaming industry as I have.

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